In This Close, which will air on the streaming service Sundance Now, one of our two protagonists is a graphic novelist. He’s also deaf, and is confronted by a fan at a signing event about why he doesn’t have that representation in his published work. “Because it wouldn’t sell,” he signs to him, in the frankest possible manner. It’s something that he, Michael (Josh Feldman), struggles with throughout the short, 6-episode season, in terms of authenticity. If not him then who? The same issues are faced by his best friend Kate (Shoshanna Stern), who is also deaf, as she lip reads and speaks out loud to try to fit in better not only at work (and with her clueless boss, played by Cheryl Hines), but with her hearing-abled boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford). Meanwhile, Kate and Michael also share an exceptionally close bond, in a literal manifestation of the idea of two friends who speak their own language.
That question of representation and working outside of one’s comfort zone are at the heart of This Close, which was co-created by Stern and Feldman out of a fatigue at waiting for meaty roles to be written for them as deaf actors. Their half-hour series, based off of a web series of a similar concept, maintains a lo-fi indie vibe through Andrew Ahn‘s direction that’s character-focused rather than hinging on plot twists. There’s also a refreshing vignette-based style to it that occasionally plays with time. There are obvious beats to some of the storytelling, but it doesn’t make them any less poignant. In the early episodes, there are also plenty of scenes that show how well-meaning hearing-abled people handle deafness — by shouting, with pity, or by immediately seeing it as inspirational. As one of Kate’s co-workers tells her, how can she complain about anything when she’s still able to hear? The co-worker goes on to incorrectly reassure her, “I know you aren’t sure what words to use sometimes, but neither do I, and I’m not even deaf!” Kate smiles kindly and replies, “Hang in there. One day you’ll find somebody worthy of being your inspiration, but it’s not me.”
It’s clear that a lot of these interactions (including a purposefully cringe-worthy Actors with Disabilities panel) are based off of real-life experiences, but here Stern and Feldman are able to respond in a more cathartic way than perhaps they were at the time. And while these funny, heartfelt moments work really well, the show also takes some emotionally difficult turns when more pointedly focusing on the relationship not only between the two friends, but in regards to their romantic relationships as well. Michael is still reeling from a breakup where his partner (a very charming Colt Prattes) wanted an open relationship, even after they had mutually agreed to close it. And though Kate’s well-intentioned boyfriend Danny proposes to her and does seem to genuinely love her, later episodes reveal his lack of seriousness in really learning how to sign. Both Kate and Danny retreat, sometimes unfairly, into their own worlds when surrounded by those who speak the way they do, and those cracks between them only continue to grow.
What’s most noticeable about the focus of This Close, though, is how quiet it is for those who are hearing-abled. The score is minimal, and there are long stretches of time when Kate, Michael, or others (like Marlee Matlin, who plays Michael’s mother) are signing to one another. Those moments are accompanied by subtitles, of course, but there’s a very conscious choice to let the sound of their hands be the only sound we hear (with a few exceptions). It’s almost uncomfortable, which is probably the point. It’s also why a series like this probably isn’t on a more mainstream platform, which is exactly the point Michael makes about his comic initially. And yet, it is out there, authentic, and a necessary take. The characters are forced to split their time between two different ways of seeing the world, which is relatable. What are the two worlds that we find ourselves struggling between? Where do we feel most at home, or conversely, the most shut-out?
This Close doesn’t seek to minimize the importance of telling a story about deafness specifically, but there’s a key universality to its storylines that makes it accessible. It’s about two deaf people, but neither they (nor the series) are defined by that. They’re characters who take on similar stories to any other young protagonists navigating careers and love and heartache; they just happen to be deaf. It’s not a reveal or a twist as much as a fact, one that puts a new filter on a familiar premise.
This Close is raw and insightful, but it’s only fair to mention that it’s also messy, a little cliche, and ends with a questionable cliffhanger. There’s clearly so much more story to tell, and Feldman and Stern obviously wanted to address a lot of things in what feels like a micro-sized show. When This Close works, though, it’s reminiscent of the best of HBO’s wonderful Looking, a show that was funny and emotional, but that also didn’t let its leads off of the hook when it came to being accountable for their choices. And like Looking, there’s not nearly enough of this series — at least not yet.
Rating: ★★★ Good
The first two episodes of This Close debut Wednesday, February 14th on Sundance Now.