Sunday, January 25, 2015

Episode of the Week: The Fosters - "Over/Under"

Episode of the Week is a recurring feature devoted to examining a notable episode from the past week of television.

Season 2, Episode 12

This week's episode of ABC Family's The Fosters was the kind of hour that made me remember the exact parameters of this Episode of the Week feature.  Previous entries have all been awarded to what was either the best or one of the best episodes in that given week of television, from Nathan For You's gutbusting "Souvenir Shop/ELAIFF" to Masters of Sex's transfixing "Fight."  There were many shows in the last seven days that put out better episodes than "Over/Under": Girls, Justified, Parks and Recreation, The Flash, The Venture Bros., Empire, Parenthood, Broad City, and Archer; to name a handful.  But Episode of the Week is about examining a notable episode from the past week of television, and even a bad episode can spark deep discussion.  That's not to say that "Over/Under" is bad -- it's actually pretty good -- just that it excited me way more than episodes that I technically thought were superior.

What made it so noteworthy is mostly contained to the episode's final 10 minutes, which deal with Callie's and Sophia's confrontation, but we'll get to that later.  Callie's adoption storyline has had its fair share of problems in the past.  In one way or another, it has been present for the entire 33 episodes of the show so far, which is way too long, and every new obstacle introduced just feels like an unnecessary speed bump to cause Callie more misery.  Most of the front half of the second season dealt with the introduction of Robert, Callie's birth father, into the picture, the latest element keeping Callie from being adopted by Stef and Lena.  "Over/Under" picks up right where the show left off last year, opening with the reveal that the ambulance trucks from the end of the Christmas special are actually for Robert, who had a panic attack after Callie told him that she doesn't want to live with him and his family.  It's a pretty lame twist, but it serves the plot purpose of inspiring Robert to fight even harder for custody over Callie.  What makes this aspect of the story so frustrating is that we know Callie is ultimately going to end up with the Adams-Fosters, so this custody battle feels dramatically inert.

But one of the clear highlights of the storyline is that it introduced us to Callie's half-sister, Sophia (Bailee Madison, who might actually be Maia Mitchell's long lost sister).  Earlier in the season, many fans speculated about what exactly was the deal with Sophia: Was she just an over-excited, spoiled rich kid?  Was she actually crazy?  Was she completely normal and made to seem insane because of Madison's intense energy?  Well, this episode finally lands on the answer of her being suicidally depressed, something that became clearer with each new scene appeared in.  I called this from the first or second episode featuring Sophia, an accomplishment I'd like to attribute to pure personal skill, but the real credit goes to the writers.  Creators Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige, along with the rest of the writing staff, get depression so right, especially the way in which it manifests itself in teenagers.  They subtly laced clues into previous episodes, particularly that scene earlier in the season when her family takes Callie on their boat and she's complaining about her life in a way that makes it seem like she's trying to impress Callie, but she's actually just really unhappy.  It's a deft piece of writing, and the way the show has handled Sophia is unlike any other depressed teen of recent memory.

When the judge at the custody court tells Callie that she must spend at least one day a week with Robert, Callie agrees under the stipulation that she only sees Robert, not Jill or Sophia.  Upset about this decision, Sophia goes to Callie's job and tells her that she'll kill herself if Callie doesn't agree to live with the Quinns.  Callie chalks it up to teenage melodrama -- that is, until Sophia walks out into moving traffic and causes a car crash.  The attempted suicide is intense enough, but the scene where Callie tells Sophia's parents what happened is absolutely heartbreaking.  This could have been After School Special material, but Bailee Madison's delivery of, "Sometimes I just want ot die.  I don't really think I can do this anymore," makes it raw and real.  And what a smart choice for the show to just have Callie tell the truth to the Quinns (and thus cause Sophia to tell the truth) instead of dragging out the lie for an interminable conflict.

Really, there are wise choices aplenty in Paige and Bredeweg's script.  I'm so happy and relieved that they didn't turn this story into a matter of Sophia being generically "crazy," and have all of her antics be a result of her deep desire to have a sister.  The Fosters has incorporated melodrama and soap operatics at times, but I should've never worried about this particular possibility because Paige and Bredeweg have proven to be smarter than that in the past, and they've done it again here.  "Over/Under" makes a clear point that Sophia was depressed long before Callie entered the equation, but this whole ordeal has triggered it to flare up with even more intensity.  It's just a conduit into which she can channel her illness.  Callie resisting the Quinn family has finally given her a "reason" to act on her feelings, but Callie knows, we know, and Sophia knows that that's not the real cause.

One of the best things about The Fosters is that it tackles so many important issues without ever drawing attention to itself.  It deals with nontraditional families, interracial relationships, racial identity, and teenage depression; and it deserves a pat on the back simply for doing so without demanding one.  Heck, in this same episode, we even got more of the thoughtful and nuanced story of Jude dealing with his sexuality.  (That storyline is getting a little tedious, actually, but we'll save that for another time.)  Because this show is on ABC Family, it doesn't get discussed in the same breath as progressive shows like Orange is the New Black and Transparent, but it's certainly one of the most important programs on television right now.  The Fosters: it goes there.  Wait, no, that's another show...

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