My defection to ABC Family began years ago, with Greek (2007), The Middleman (2008) and Make it or Break It (2009). Now, it’s the channel I turn to first for smart, fun, diverse youth-oriented programming.
If you still think ABC Family is the “Family Channel” of yore, rife with conservative, preachy, Seventh Heaven-esque shows run back-to-back with The 700 Club, you’re missing out on some great TV. The network’s tagline is “a new kind of family,” and it delivers on that promise: putting forth fresh projects and taking risks on stories that might not get traction anywhere else. For instance, weekly sitcom Melissa & Joey is refreshingly adult, Who’s the Boss for a new generation, with fast and flip sexual banter and teens who can more than hold their own. But it’s the dramatic field where ABCF really shines.
When I was growing up, Beverly Hills, Sunnydale, Capeside and Roswell were very white, heteronormative enclaves. It didn’t matter if their corresponding real-life geography boasted more diversity, the shows were pretty homogenous. If you weren’t fair-skinned and straight, you didn’t really see yourself on teen TV. By and large, if there were characters of color, they’d be wacky sidekicks, the first to die in a murder mystery or part of a brief Afterschool Special arc wherein somebody fell for a person from The Wrong Side of the Tracks. ABC Family changed that. Lincoln Heights, about a black family in LA, ran for four seasons. Greek had a college-age cast, with black characters Calvin and Ashleigh each getting their own love interests. Calvin, black and gay, actually had two — complete with onscreen smooches and implied sex. Got any pearls? Feel free to clutch ‘em. The Middleman featured Natalie Morales as lead character Wendy Watson. The flighty bestie? A blonde. How many times does that happen? Then there’s Pretty Little Liars‘ lesbian teen Emily Fields (Shay Mitchell). Her parents are portrayed by Eric Steinberg and Nia Peeples, and you don’t sit around wondering, “What are the Fieldses?” because you already know: a family trying to support each other while crazy crap happens around them. And ABCF continues to…you know, I don’t want to say “push the envelope.” Because it’s not scandalous. They’re just putting a bigger, better envelope on the table! This summer’s Twisted and The Fosters are prime (pun fully intended!) examples.
The heart of The Fosters is the relationship between Stef (Teri Polo) and Lena (Sherri Saum), interracial married lesbians raising a family. Like Emily, they are not defined by their sexual orientation; they have a whole lot of other stuff going on. (Albeit no mysterious psychopaths stalking their every move. Thank goodness!) They’re not tragic, they’re not sexless and they fight about normal, everyday stuff: what to do about their kids, how to make time for themselves, etc. And their kids…oh, that’s the stuff of delicious drama: Stef’s biological son, Brandon; twins Jesus (he has ADD) and Mariana (she’s a pretty pretty princess), whom Stef and Lena adopted as toddlers; and new foster kids Callie and Jude (who may be gay). It’s a house full of teenage hormones and culture clashes — and it’s incredibly watchable. Particularly because the family doesn’t live in a bubble. We see their community — a lush SoCal town, just as diverse as they are. Lena and Stef socialize with other lesbians, Jesus’ girlfriend (and Mariana’s BFF) is also Latina and her parents are religious, etc. A little over halfway through its freshman season, The Fosters has already tackled birth control, abuse, drugs, colorism, divorce and custody issues. This is one show unafraid to tackle it all.
Meanwhile, on Pretty Little Liars-esque thriller Twisted, two out of three lead characters are of color: suspected murderer and silken “socio” Danny (Avan Jogia) is half-Indian and his childhood friend and budding love interest, Lacey (Kylie Bunbury), is black. I’m wracking my brain trying to recall if and when a South Asian actor has ever been the solo male lead of an American TV show, and off the top of my head, I’ve got nothing. Heroes, The Big Bang Theory, Parks & Rec…they’re all ensemble casts. And I remember holding my breath during the pilot episode of Twisted, thinking that, surely, the show would angle Danny towards Jo, played by the petite, blond Maddie Hasson. “The brown girl never gets the guy,” I told myself, glumly. A few episodes later, I was so glad to be proven wrong. It was Lacey getting the angsty, longing glances and Lacey who was the object of Danny’s “let’s get the band back together” friendship campaign — Lacey who, by the way, is also one of the most popular girls in school and has a popular jock boyfriend. Say, what? Again, when does that ever happen? Well, if you watch ABC Family…ALL THE TIME.
I love that this network and its programming gives viewers options and offers more realistic depictions of the America we live in today. I love that all kinds of teens growing up now can see themselves and their classmates on the screen — and not just in “token” roles. You don’t just get “a new kind of family” on ABCF, you get a whole community. And a whole lot of entertainment.