This week, we’re presenting our Vulture TV Awards, honoring the best in television from the past year. Vulture contributor Julie Klausner kicked things off with an epic opening monologue, and now we’re straight-up dishing out the virtual hardware. Amy Schumer and H. Jon Benjamin already have their Vultures. Up next: Best Teen Show, as selected by Vulture’s Margaret Lyons.
Back in the day, UPN and the WB — the progenitors of the CW — aired teen shows that were substantive and inventive enough to make grown-ups sit up and take notice: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, obviously, but also Gilmore Girls, Everwood, and Veronica Mars. (Dawson’s Creek gets an honorable mention there, too.) Nowadays, though, the CW is more focused on moody sci-fi and fantasy shows, none of which hold up to Buffy’s wit or even seem to aspire to. Now it’s ABC Family that has staked its claim to the earnest teen-oriented family drama. Switched at Birth paved the way, but this year’s best teen show is The Fosters.
The Fosters, whose second season premiered just last night, centers on 16-year-old Callie, a tough (but not as tough as she seems) girl who grew up bouncing between foster homes after her mother died and her dad went to jail. She devotes most of her energy to protecting her little brother Jude, but the two of them get to loosen up a little when they move in with the Fosters — yeah, a foster family whose last name is Foster. Interracial moms Lena and Stef are already parents to Stef's biological 16-year-old son Brandon and foster-to-adopt 15-year-old twins Jesus and Mariana. The first season of the show covered some of the differences between race and ethnicity, the benefits and occasional limitations of talk therapy, alcoholism, emergency contraception, the strain on undocumented immigrants, ADHD medication and its appropriate and inappropriate uses, the death of a parent, and early-onset dementia. The first half of the season occasionally veered into Very Special Episode territory, but then the show found that strong emotions and corniness are not synonymous; you can have very loving, devoted parents and still have those characters ring true. Kids — teenagers especially — make big mistakes and then make big apologies. That's both dramatically interesting and true to life.
One of the markers of a great teen show is the great teen breakdown, again, something that many of us experienced as teens ourselves. Sometimes you just get so worked up, and things get so out of hand, and everything's your fault. (Think of Angela dyeing her hair on My So-Called Life, and then sobbing to her mother about how sorry she is.) Oftentimes these meltdowns are over nothing: one failed test, one small fight, a minor inconvenience. On The Fosters, though, Callie's big meltdown comes when she runs away: She and her foster brother Brandon have been, uh, fostering a very intense mutual attraction, which she knows could jeopardize her and Jude’s placement, so she decides to bail. She discovers that her dad has been out of prison for some time but hasn't made any attempts to contact her, and then she just snaps. She’s exhausted, confused, scared, and far away from anyone who cares about her, so she flips out in a convenience store, crying and eating packages of food, daring the clerk to call the police. Which he does, and she gets arrested.
Callie’s breaking point feels like it really matters: It’s a moment that sends her back to juvie and then to a court-mandated group home, but it’s also a moment that changes something in her, forces her to confront who and what she wants to be. She’s a kid who had to be a grown-up way too early, but now she's 16, and it's genuinely time to make some more mature decisions; we see her grapple with this all the time, her desire to be taken care of and her deep fear that those who are supposed to take care of her will betray or endanger her. (Maia Mitchell, who plays Callie, gives her the right combination of edge and vulnerability.)
There’s no denying that The Fosters is a teen drama. There’s romance and backstabbing and dance-team auditions and wrestling try-outs and essay contests and sexy times like you'd expect. But it’s also one of the most progressive shows on TV — if not the most progressive show on TV — covering race, colorism, sexual identity, gender identity, recovery from sexual assault, the capriciousness of the foster-care system, and the classism and racism present in the criminal-justice system. That said, I wouldn’t call The Fosters an issues-oriented show. It reminds me a lot of Everwood, not only because Brandon is also a gifted pianist, just like Ephram was, but also because there's a fundamental wound at the center of the show. On Everwood, it was the death of wife and mother Julia Brown; on The Fosters, each kid has a different story of how the Foster family, while great, is perhaps not the family they dreamed of. Brandon is Stef's biological son, but he’s old enough to remember his (hetero-coupled) parents’ divorce, and to know that his dad is an alcoholic. Jesus and Mariana are twins, but they have different relationships with their drug-addict grifter biological mother. Callie’s very hesitant to consider herself “part of the family,” while Jude, who’s much younger, really throws himself into things because he’s so, so eager to leave behind his life of neglect and abuse; Callie is much more worried about betraying her dead mother by allowing someone else, let alone two people, to play the role of mom. But here they all are, together, in a gorgeous, enormous craftsman house, with two beautiful doting mothers who adore them and each other, and, well, that counts for a lot.
Honorable mentions: Switched at Birth continues to engage and delight, and Degrassi, somehow, after 13 seasons, is still going strong.