In the charming, observant Sundance Now series This Close, the fact that the two protagonists are deaf is both the whole point and completely beside it at the same time.
Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman — deaf actors who created and wrote the series, which debuts Thursday on the Sundance streaming service — star as Kate and Michael, hearing-impaired best friends who communicate with each other via a flurry of signs and hand gestures, but speak the same language in every other way, too. The first episode opens with the two of them jetting off together for a weekend in Seattle and they’re so obviously bonded that, at first, it seems like they’re romantically involved. Eventually it becomes clear that Michael (Feldman) is gay and struggling to get over a breakup with his fiancé Ryan (Colt Prattes), while Kate (Stern) has recently gotten engaged to her boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford), but is keeping this information from Michael. It’s a fitting introduction: A lot of what transpires in the six half-hour episodes focuses on the things people fail to tell each other, either on purpose or because their communication systems are too frayed to function properly.
Navigating romance and friendship is a universal experience, and the fact that Kate and Michael are deaf doesn’t change that. Kate fights and reconciles with Danny, Michael does the same with Ryan, and Kate and Michael do the same thing with each other. This Close treats its leads like who they are: human beings experiencing the same daily joys and frustrations as people who can hear without issue. The fact that Kate and Michael are deaf does not define them, and the show conveys that every step of the way.
That said, This Close definitely addresses the fact that Kate and Michael are deaf because it has such an impact on how they process the world and how others treat them. Neither of their romantic partners are deaf, which causes problems — especially for Kate and Danny, who too often forgets to be sensitive to his soon-to-be wife. Danny knows sign language, but only to a limited degree and often forgets simple things, like the fact that he can’t get Kate’s attention simply by calling her name from across a crowded room. Because he is played by Gilford, a.k.a. Friday Night Lights quarterback Matt Saracen, it’s obvious that he’s sweet and genuinely loves Kate. But by the third or fourth episode, we’re so steeped in Kate’s point of view that we’re just as aware of his tiny inconsiderate acts as she is.
Am I making this show sound like a serious drama? It’s not. I’d place it in the same category as Transparent, Casual, or Catastrophe, because its episodes are roughly 30 minutes long, it’s a relationship-driven story, it mixes the comedic with the melancholy, and it has an indie film sensibility. (All six of the episodes were directed by Andrew Ahn, who won the John Cassavetes Award at last year’s Independent Spirit Awards for his debut feature, Spa Night.) Like those first two series, it’s also set in L.A. But This Close has a lighter, more hopeful spirit than any of its “sad in California” counterparts, and its characters are more inherently decent.
Stern and Feldman are both convincing in their roles, but because Stern is playing a more emotive character, her performance stands out. As Kate, she shifts ably from apologetic to fiery to vulnerable. In one crucial scene in which she’s unexpectedly asked to make a speech, she even swallows her words in a way that conveys a thicket of conflicting emotions.
The pair are complemented by a great group of supporting actors and guest stars. In addition to Gilford and Prattes, Cheryl Hines shows up as Kate’s self-involved and distracted publicist boss, Marlee Matlin appears in an episode as Michael’s mother, and Nyle DiMarco from America’s Next Top Model plays, coincidentally enough, a deaf former contestant from America’s Next Top Model.
A running theme in This Close is secrecy, and how keeping the truth from a loved one is often justified as a way to protect them. The impulse to shield Kate or Michael, who may wrongly be perceived as more fragile than non-deaf people, is strong in the people who know them. This is often true in the real world, as well as in films and TV shows that go so far overboard to “celebrate our differences” that they neglect to let the personalities of characters with disabilities shine through. Television has been getting better about this, as series like Speechless and Atypical have proven. This Close is another step in the right direction.
In the second episode of This Close, Kate is asked to be a last-minute, substitute speaker on a panel about how people with disabilities are treated in Hollywood. She’s the only publicity assistant in a group of actors, and she eventually gets so frustrated by the confining nature of the discussion that she can’t take it anymore. “You focus on our disability,” she tells the moderator, played by Nicole Bilderback of Bring It On and Clueless fame, “but not who we are.”
To its great credit, This Close focuses on both equally. It’s a terrific, quietly groundbreaking series because of that.