While everyone is losing precious hours of their life worrying about “Bridgerton’s” casting or “Euphoria’s” return, “Good Trouble” has quietly become the most interesting drama of the bunch.
As it approaches the middle of its third season, the Freeform series is remarkable for many things. It is a successful spinoff; two of its main characters, Callie (Maia Mitchell) and Mariana (Cierra Ramirez), are young adult sisters first introduced on the popular series “The Fosters.” They are part of a female-centric communal housing project in downtown Los Angeles known as the Coterie, which is above the Palace Theatre and just as urban-French-Renaissance-meets-highly-curated-Goodwill as it sounds.
For the record:
10:00 AM, Apr. 21, 2021In an earlier version of this story, a subsequent reference to the character played by Cierra Ramirez identifies her as Callie; Ramirez’s character is Mariana.
Like many shows depicting this demographic, “Good Trouble” involves a lot of sex, romance and interpersonal drama, but it also takes work-life very seriously. There are just as many strong story lines following the characters’ diverse careers, which include the law (Callie), tech (Mariana), activism (Malika, played by Zuri Adele) and stand-up comedy (Alice, played by Sherry Cola.)
“The Fosters” was a groundbreaking show that revolved around a married lesbian couple and the many children they fostered and/or adopted. With parentage like that, along with a title echoing the late Georgia Rep. John Lewis, it is not surprising that “Good Trouble” uses these careers to explore the types of realities, often known as “political,” that many young-adult series tend to avoid or feature only occasionally.
In its third season, these realities have reflected the news cycle in a particularly astonishing way; no other show has captured the whipsaw nature of life in the last year as acutely. And without a single mask or COVID-19 graph in sight.
Like many series, “Good Trouble” shut down production in spring 2020. And like many television creators, executive producer Joanna Johnson and her team had to decide how or if the series, entering its third season, should reflect the new realities.
“We had just started to shoot the first episode when we got shut down; we had two or three scripts written,” she says. “We had no idea how long the pandemic was going to last, and we felt like we really couldn’t tell the stories we wanted to tell with everyone in masks and no one allowed to leave the Coterie.”
As the very mixed success of shows that have tried to reference the pandemic proves, this was a smart move. And “Good Trouble” didn’t need COVID to reflect the many facets of the last year. The natural confines of the Coterie already created the enforced intimacy of the lockdown — “there’s always someone to talk to,” says teacher and body positive influencer Davia (Emma Hunton), explaining the best and worst things about communal living — and several of the residents’ jobs took care of the rest.
Among many developments this season, Malika faced the legal ramifications of her arrest during a Black Lives Matter protest, Mariana watched in horror as an activist app she had designed was taken over by white supremacists and Alice dealt with the damage done by anti-Asian stereotypes.
If those plots seem torn from the headlines, they weren’t. At least not recent headlines.
“People are always saying, ‘Wow, you really are ahead of things,’” says Johnson. “But we’re just trying to deal with things that have been going on for a long time. If these issues happen to make the press, it’s just because it’s been in the shadows for so long.”
Indeed, when Johnson and cocreators Bradley Bredeweg and Peter Paige decided to make Malika a BLM activist, Johnson says, “the group had a negative approval rating.” Johnson reached out to BLM cofounder Patrisse Cullors and asked if she would appear as herself on the show; Cullors became first an advisor and then a writer on the show. “She was on staff when the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor protests began, so we had a front seat to what her organization was going through. She became executive director of Black Lives Matter and had to leave, but we were very invested in those stories long before the summer.”
In addition to racist police brutality, those stories also included the plague of white supremacy, the continued male dominance of the tech world, the problems with so-called diversity initiatives and the danger of stereotypes in comedy.
None of which is presented as if it were a PSA or a hashtag. The beauty of “Good Trouble” is that, like all good television, it is exquisitely character-driven. And those characters are, like many young people, living politically aware lives: Unlike other good and very popular shows I could name, the interests of the Coterie extend way beyond the genre’s traditionally insular focus on self-discovery.
“They always say, ‘Don’t talk politics with your friends,’ but you do,” says Ramirez. “I feel like these writers have a crystal ball. I remember protesting at City Hall this summer and it felt like deja vu because we had just filmed a protest there.”
While some of Ramirez’s story revolved around Mariana trying to navigate a relationship with her boss (and then former boss), as a coder, she faced ongoing sexism. And as the creator of an activist app, she faced hateful “All Lives Matter” demonstrators, who told her in one episode to “go home.”
Coming from “The Fosters,” Ramirez had some experience with being a face of a socially progressive show. But for Adele, playing a BLM activist has been an education, politically and professionally. Malika is her first big role.
“So much of it was written by Patrisse, and I had so much access to the leaders of this movement. It was an honor and a responsibility,” she says. “When I was at a protest with Patrisse and [Black Lives Matter Los Angeles organizer] Melina [Abdullah], it feels like being on a set, but then, the last time, the police started shooting rubber bullets, which made it clear it was not. “
“Quarantine made me have more thoughts about it,” she added. “Am I a face of this movement? How much do I need to do? When do I need to show up? I’ve called myself an abolitionist all my life, and I am passionate about dismantling the systemic racism in this country, but having met with real abolitionists, I realize I haven’t earned that yet.”
And sometimes, she says, it can get overwhelming. Playing the scene in which Malika is led off to jail made for a very difficult day. “It was very emotional and ancestral,” she says. “We had a Black director, which we don’t often have, and the way he set the tone and the way he was able to speak to me felt very supportive, which was important, because [the scene] took me to the beginnings of things, to my ancestors being chained.”
As far as her responsibility outside her role, Adele says everyone in the cast has a different comfort level. “No one is going to be able to speak for the entire community,” she says. “It’s really important to lean into our strengths. For some people, that’s being on the frontlines. For some people, it’s not. Melina and Patrisse have different ways of showing up for the movement, and they have so much joy. My activism is sharing Black joy.”
When Cola read the audition request for a queer, Asian American woman who manages the Coterie and aspires to be a stand-up comic, her first thought was, “This is me.” But now that she’s played her for three seasons, Alice has become more like her best friend. “I’m not the same person I was,” Cola says. “I’ve been learning a lot. How to be a better ally, for one, to the Black community, to the trans community. Being in this show makes you want to do better. Not everyone can say that about a TV show they’re on.”
In Season 3, Alice competes for, and is accepted into, a diversity initiative for comedians, only to find that, guest appearance by Margaret Cho aside, it is as much a problem as a solution — participants are cast in bits that revolve around stereotypes.
“The mantra of this show is to speak up and speak out, and Alice has definitely grown. But then you see her realizing that she may be representing her people, but she’s being put in a box. And she has to decide, ‘Oh, I want to represent and get exposure, but am I setting my people back?’ And that is something I’ve dealt with in my career.”
Having this storyline coincide with the fatal shooting of six Asian women in Georgia was devastating and empowering for Cola. “We need to shatter society’s ignorant definition of what it means to be an Asian woman. We are not a monolith but the power of our community, and we are finally celebrating who we are and how we’re fighting back.”
Working with Cho, who appears in Wednesday’s midseason finale, was a dream come true, she says. “She’s been an inspiration. She embraced who she was as a bisexual Asian female comic, and that’s how I want to live my life.”
And is doing so already. Cola identifies as bisexual, something she had never discussed with her mother. “When I started playing a lesbian, I thought I should be liberated in my own life, so I had the conversation with my own mom,” she says. “It was a way to open up the conversation about queerness.”
Clearing a space for these kinds of conversations by telling stories television has too long ignored is what drew Johnson to “The Fosters” and propelled her to spin off “Good Trouble.” Both shows have taken on difficult topics while inevitably choosing optimism over despair. In this age of dark and troubled TV, that choice could be viewed as contradictory, even unserious, but that’s not how Johnson or the show’s fans see it.
“We wanted it to seem real but not gritty,” Johnson says. “Prestige television is always so dark. I love and watch a lot of dark shows, and I’m over it. Our No. 1 job is to entertain, to engage. I don’t want to be sappy or preachy, but more and more, I want to put things out in the world that are hopeful and ethical.”
When: 10 p.m. Wednesday
Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children under age 14)