If you haven’t heard of Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman’s new show This Close, you’re about to.
Comprised of six 30-minute episodes, This Close tells the story of best friends Kate (Stern), a newly-engaged publicist, and Michael (Feldman), a gay graphic novelist trying to move on from his ex-fiance, both of whom are deaf. The show explores their relationship as well as their relationships with others in their lives, such as Kate’s fiance Danny (Zach Gilford), Michael’s ex-fiance Ryan (Colt Prattes), and Kate’s boss Stella (Cheryl Hines) and navigating life.
It is the first straight-to-series scripted original for Sundance Now, a new digital streaming service.
Sundance Now in partnership with the ATX Television Festival hosted a screening Wednesday night in Austin, Texas, of the first two episodes of This Close followed by a Q&A with Stern, Feldman and the director of the series, Andrew Ahn, and it was EVERYTHING.
From the opening scenes of Kate and Michael in the airport on their way to Seattle and dealing with TSA agents and airline gate agents trying to “help” them to their plane, this show has already captured my heart. It’s clear from the beginning that this show’s goal is to be honest in its portrayal of the deaf experience and just of life. Who hasn’t had a weird airport story? It was also an excellent way to set up Kate and Michael’s relationship and I love how expressive and open the two characters are with each other (look out for some cute dance moves from Stern and Feldman in these scenes).
In addition to making me laugh till my face hurt, the show also packs an emotional one-two punch to your feels at times, especially with Michael, who is trying to put his life back together after he and his fiance broke off their engagement, only to then learn about his best friend’s engagement in probably the worst way possible. Michael is spiraling and trying to come up with his next graphic novel, and the cinematography, the direction, the music and Feldman all work together seamlessly to bring you into that headspace with him.
The second episode delved into issues surrounding disability representation in media and in life, with Kate dropping some serious truth bombs on the audience both onscreen and off. This show definitely holds nothing back. What makes it unique (which I hope will lead to other programs like it in the future, not just for deaf representation, but all communities) is that deafness is not the sole focus of these characters. Being deaf is only a part of who they are, much like how sexual orientation or gender identity or disability is only one part of a person, and This Close in just two 30-minute episodes illustrates that in Kate and Michael. They are more than their deafness, despite how other characters in the story react to them or treat them.
Following the screening was a Q&A with Stern, Feldman and Ahn which was very enlightening, both to the show’s origins and the level of detail and love that went into the production. The three fielded questions from the audience both in spoken English and in American Sign Language with interpreters.
Ahn spoke about the challenges with framing shots, especially close-ups, in order to keep both faces and hands in frame, as ASL is a significant part of the dialogue in This Close. According to Stern, he worked closely with the ASL master on the show in order to do this.
“I actually really loved those scenes,” Ahn said. “I think it’s indicative of the way that communication happens, it happens on top of each other, and for me it’s exciting that someone can watch a scene like the one in the bookstore where Kate and Michael are arguing and then Gus the bookstore manager and the interpreter talking.”
He said he liked the idea that people could watch the episode over and over and “get another layer of it.”
He discussed how he worked with different types of cameras and music to portray Kate and Michael’s personalities. Kate’s scenes were filmed with a more rigid camera setup, whereas Michael’s were done with a freer, more handheld setup allowing for more free motion, reflecting Kate as more proper while Michael is more turbulent.
Feldman and Stern talked about how the production team worked closely with them on aspects of the show like sound in order to create an immersive and honest experience.
“Generally, when deaf people are on screen, the impression is no sound or silence,” Stern said through an interpreter. “I don’t know what that’s like, so I asked Josh how he feels even though he doesn’t wear a hearing aid, what’s your world like, does it have no sound, and he felt the same that I did.”
Both of them worked with the sound editors and composers to give a more honest representation of sound for a deaf person.
This Close marks Feldman’s first foray into acting, which he admits was Stern’s idea because of the way he wrote Michael.
“I know what to expect now with this show and this character, I’ve fallen in love with it, whatever else is going to come, I don’t know,” Feldman signed in answer to a question about his future acting plans.
Stern answered a question about whether scenes in the episodes came from her and Feldman’s own experiences and what it was like showing those as actors.
“Everything that happened related to the deaf experience has actually happened in real life,” Stern said. “Either to us or people close to us.”
This is what impressed me the most about the show and the Q&A, the emphasis on honesty. The show seeks to present to its audience, both those that are deaf and those that are not, an honest representation of life for a deaf person, by showing them as people. That honesty comes from Stern and Feldman sharing themselves and their experiences in a collaborative environment. This is what positive representation in media looks like, people telling their own stories in an honest and open way.
Thank you, Shoshannah and Josh, for this show and for these characters and for showing that this kind of representation is possible.
This Close premieres on Sundance Now on February 14th.