There's a moment in the third episode of The New Normal, NBC's canceled sitcom about a gay couple adopting a baby, that set the tone for the series: When Bryan and David shop for baby clothes for their future daughter, homophobic parents shield their children's eyes and make disparaging remarks. The rest of the episode addresses Bryan and David's concerns about bringing a child into a society that doesn't fully accept them, and their differing opinions on how to deal with bigotry.
Is this a real issue same-sex couples across the country face? Surely. The problem is that The New Normal was supposed to be a comedy — but its frequent grandstanding, however noble, was almost entirely devoid of humor. The series became so focused on the "issues" that it forgot to be funny.
It's an easy trap to fall into when you're making consciously progressive television. After all, you want to get your point across — while representation itself is an important step forward in the process, it's not enough to simply show that LGBT people exist and then move on. If that were the case, we would have solved homophobia with Queer Eye for the Straight Guy. At the same time, there has to be a balance between making something that entertains and something that informs. Because unless we're tuned in to a sermon, no one wants to be preached to.
ABC Family's new drama The Fosters, which debuted June 3, is doing its best to find that middle ground between soapbox and soap, to varying degrees of success. The series follows moms Stef and Lena as they take in two new foster kids and expand their diverse family — already including two foster kids that they've adopted and Stef's biological son from a previous marriage.
Overall, the show has done an admirable job of creating a complex world in which Stef and Lena's sexual identity is only one of many issues explored. In that sense, it works: The interracial lesbian relationship at the center of this family is frequently addressed but not the only point of discussion. And yet, there are moments — as in the episode "Saturday," where the tone suddenly turns "after-school special": Stef has to explain her relationship to her father, while the suggested hashtag "#LoveIsLove" is emblazoned on the screen.
I'm willing to cut The Fosters a fair amount of slack: First because most ABC Family shows skew toward sentimentality, and that's part of the appeal, and second because The Fosters is breaking important new ground in its representation of interracial lesbian parents. (Also, I'm fairly certain we can fault ABC Family's publicity department for the on-the-nose hashtag.) Even when I'm a bit bored by the "issues" focus, I can still appreciate the well drawn characters and warm family dynamic that make The Fosters such an inviting series.
While there's definite room for improvement, The Fosters has already surpassed its predecessors. Compare the complex, intimate relationship between Stef and Lena to Mitch and Cam's glorified roommate situation on Modern Family. We know they're gay, because they've kissed a couple times and the show has embraced some of the expected gay couple stereotypes: Cam is a loudmouthed diva while Mitch is stubborn and fussy, a sort of Bert and Ernie dynamic. But for the most part, they're sexless, and their sexuality as a whole is rarely an issue.
Modern Family may be a funnier show than the The New Normal was, but it's not nearly as socially conscious. Frankly, both are important, though making a statement and being funny need not be mutually exclusive. Modern Family is a tremendous hit, and whether or not it stops to have weekly conversations about why gay is OK, that mainstream success has exposed a wide variety of people to LGBT families. The New Normal, on the other hand, had points to make — which, while noble, is likely why the show failed. It's hard for a sitcom to succeed when it's so mired in agenda, no matter how positive that agenda is.
Then we come to The Fosters. Though not a comedy, the series still tries to entertain: so far, it's hit and miss. In an episode rife with speeches about reconciling a religious background with an acceptance of LGBT relationships, there were other, less overtly issues-centric storylines to follow: Mariana's relationship with her birth mother, Brandon's musical ambitions, and Callie's creepy ex-foster brother. If The Fosters can manage to treat its "message" moments with a subtler hand, it might just find the perfect balance.
Until then, we may have to deal with the occasional heavy-handed scene — moments that feel very much like preaching to the choir, if only because the vast majority of The Fosters' audience has already accepted the LGBT relationship at its core. Even if it's a little obvious and repetitive, that's a better alternative than an LGBT-inclusive series so mainstream that it's devoid of any political agenda.
Writers for The Fosters need to have faith in the audience: Don't assume they need to be lectured. There is a way to drive a point home without spelling it out. On The Fosters, for example, we can see that while Brandon's biological father is an important person in his life, his moms are the more stable support system and the stronger family unit. This is hardly indicative of every family dynamic, but it's still a powerful statement — and it doesn't require any speechifying at all.
Let's respect the viewing public. That means occasionally pushing them outside their comfort zone — something Modern Family seems afraid to try — without hammering in that you're doing so. It's a great thing that shows like The Fosters are being made, and the more series like it, the better. But there's no need to hold hands along the way. The message exists whether or not it's spelled out: The sooner we ditch the soapbox, the sooner "the new normal" doesn't feel so "new."