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Trashy and Trendy: ABC’s Take on Families

‘Mistresses’ and ‘The Fosters’ reflect Hollywood family values.

Modern, new, different: this is ABC’s way of rebranding the traditional American family with mistresses, lesbians, and even surrogate mothers. 

Just this week, two ABC shows, “Mistresses” and “The Fosters,” premiered by parading the glamour of cheating and the normality of a lesbian couple raising – wait for it – both a kid from previous heterosexual marriage plus adopted and foster children.

To present the first, ABC carefully wrapped their attack on family with a bow of friendship and girl power. “Mistresses,” based on a hit U.K. show, followed four women, portrayed by Alyssa Milano, Jes Macallan, Rochelle Aytes and Yunjin Kim to detail their extramarital affairs. ABC advertised the series as a “drama about the scandalous lives of a sexy and sassy group of four girlfriends, each on her own path to self-discovery, as they brave the turbulent journey together.” 

Jes Macallan, one of the four friends, continued ABC’s chant, saying, “You know, I’m a huge fan of obviously girl power, strong women – but strong honest women that go through things and are honest about them.” Her character promised to never wed because “I can’t spend the rest of my life catering to some man’s precious ego” and, when she wasn’t sleeping around, she spent her time as a real estate agent, searching for the dream house of a picky lesbian couple. 

One hardship the girlfriends tackled together as “strong honest women” occurred when Karen, played by Yunjin Kim, realized the man she loved – or rather, her patient as a psychiatrist – died in the arms of his wife, instead of her own. As her friends sat around her, she complained, “Which means the whole time I was just a mistress.” Well, duh.

Perhaps the critics can help the “Mistresses” in their “self-discovery.” They’ve watched the show and declared it, “trash.” USA Today described the show as “a trashy summer beach read,” while The Washington Post agreed, “some trash tries very hard but still deserves the curb.” The New York Times combined the best of both worlds – trash and beach books – relating, “Yes, we’re in a beach-reading state of mind now, and “Mistresses” is allowed to be more lowbrow than those shows, but please, not ditzy.” The Boston Globe called out the show for being “quite good at being quite bad,” as “Even the sex scenes” appeared “bland and rote.” The Huffington Post demonstrated a slightly more positive view, hosting a live web chat on the show. 

Predictably, the critics were much kinder to ABC Family’s “The Fosters.” The show gained popularity with liberal Hollywood star Jennifer Lopez as executive producer starred Teri Polo and Sherri Saum as a bi-racial lesbian couple who raise both a biological son and foster kids. 

Salon agreed that the show was like a beach read – but, this time, in a good way: “great plot, great character, compelling without being too heavy” while “The New York Times” recognized its “charming cast and spark of humor.” 

In it, the two moms stressed family routine, from snatching kisses to scheduling homework time. Polo explained to Access Hollywood that the defining moment of the show was when the Callie (Maia Mitchell), a new foster child, called the two moms, “dykes,” and Jesus (Jake T. Austin), an adopted son defended, “They prefer the term people, but yeah, they’re gay.” Polo denied an agenda, claiming, “We’re not hitting anybody over the head with anything – it’s this window into the life of a loving committed couple whom are doing their best to raise four teenagers.” 

The editors of The Washington Times disagree. “The network seeks to reshape society by portraying characters that tick every politically correct box,” they wrote of “The Fosters” in a larger takedown of ABC Family’s idea of family viewing. 

But for Polo, her character – a policewoman with a son from a previous heterosexual marriage now in love with her wife, a vice principal –offered her “peace, reality, and comfort,” and “I have more chemistry with Sherri Saum than any man I’ve ever played the wife or girlfriend of in 27 years.” But they’re not hitting anybody over the head. 

Both shows, “Mistresses” and “The Fosters,” received a TV 14 rating, meaning suitable for children ages 14 years and older. 

ABC boasted previous cozy relationships with family redefinition and alternative sexual lifestyle shows, from featuring the “Modern Family” where two gay parents raise an adopted child to the 

“Modern Family” still goes strong; however, and Sofia Vergara recently explained to HuffPo Live the success of creators Steven Levitan and Christopher Lloyd: “I think they've done a great job touching the issues that are reality right now. You know just the name of it, Modern Family, means all the things that happen now that didn’t used to happen 50 years ago or some decades ago.” 

Cierra Ramirez, adopted Mariana in “The Fosters,” also noted the evolving portrayal of family as positive: “There’s always going to be haters no matter what, and this is such a good message” – a message that “it’s about the family overall.” 

To be sure, ABC isn’t alone in its quest to remake the family into a liberal Hollywood ideal. NBC’s Christian bashing “The New Normal,” which focused on a surrogate mother for a gay couple, was cancelled after the first season.