Review: This Close Is the Kind of Authentic Representation That Makes Great Television
It’s rare that a series or film comes along nowadays that has something completely new or unexpected to say. Despite living in the golden age of peak TV, it still often seems that the stories on our screen are, at their core, familiar. This isn’t necessarily bad. Humankind has been telling the same stories for millennia and we’re still entertained, and stories are a way to know ourselves. But stories are also how we learn—how we come to understand experiences and lives outside of our own.
Far too often, though, even the stories that take us outside of our bubble are made by people firmly inside their own. It’s rare to see a creative team behind a media product that matches the diversity on the screen. Wonder Woman, for instance, with its female story and director, was still written by a man. That’s why the new series, This Close, airing on the new Sundance Now streaming service is quietly revolutionary.
This Close is about two best friends: Kate (Shoshannah Stern), who works in a mid-level position in an LA PR firm but aspires to her own client list, and Michael (Josh Feldman), a graphic novel writer whose painful break-up has left him with devastating writer’s block. They’re close—very close—not romantically, since Michael is gay, and Kate is newly engaged, but they are bonded deeply as best friends. And they both happen to be deaf. Kate and Michael literally understand each other as no one else in their lives can, and it makes for a complicated and codependent relationship between the two. Their deafness does not define them as people or characters, but it does tie them together with an intimacy their partners and other friends can’t breach. It’s a frank and refreshing depiction of friendship, disability, and the different ways we can be intimate with other human beings. It’s also entertaining as all hell.
The series was created by its stars, Stern (Supernatural, Weeds) and Feldman, who are actually deaf. It started small, according to Feldman and Stern, who chatted with me over email. “We were writing together for about a year before we decided to tell a story that felt close to home, a story about us and our friendship. This became a YouTube pilot called Fridays, which became a web series called The Chances, which then evolved into our television series This Close.”
The series made a splash at Sundance last year, and the new Sundance Now streaming channel picked it up. Let’s take a minute to appreciate the very existence of the series, and appreciate Sundance Now for taking the chance and making the project. When Kate gets stuck on a cloying Diversity in Media panel in the second episode, the show itself makes the point of how rare it is to see disabled characters portrayed by actors who are actually disabled. So it’s one step further to see a series with disabled creators, and a welcome one.
The difference shows. Whereas many productions will include a disabled character for a spell and pat themselves on the back, This Close is by and about members of the community they are portraying, without solely being about their disabilities. Kate and Michael are flawed and strong in ways that have nothing to do with deafness, and it’s fantastic. This Close is sharp and funny, mining both humor and heartbreak from its characters’ daily lives. Even so, who they are as deaf people is never ignored, either.
Stern and Feldman explain: “While we wanted the story to be about the characters, because we were creating a world around these two people who are deaf, there were moments where their deafness came to the surface and defined their experiences in ways that rang very true to us. There are definitely moments in the show that have happened to us or people around us.” In the first episode, Kate and Michael pre-boarding a plane, and blissful ignorance of a noisy airplane full of coughing passengers and crying babies, is brilliantly juxtaposed later, when a flight attendant over-reacts to Michael’s inability to hear him, to disastrous results.
The situations, both funny and dramatic, are mined directly from life and thus ring incredibly true, in a way that can make able-bodied persons (myself included) think about our own behavior, but it also puts us in Kate and Michaels shoes in a way I’ve rarely seen. When guileless waiters or clerks start to yell when they are told Kate or Michael is deaf, or an interpreter fails to keep up with Kate’s signing, it’s subtle and biting at the same time. But the beauty of This Close is that Kate and Michael are not defined by their disability, yet it remains a vibrant and integral part of them and their stories none the less. Much of the series’ dialogue is in American Sign Language with subtitles. According to Feldman and Stern, the production didn’t encounter any issues at all, and some of the crew even began learning and using ASL with each other.
The performances are fantastic, with Stern shining especially with equal parts ebullience and steel, while Feldman portrays Michael’s depressive defensiveness with just enough pathos that we still feel for him. The supporting cast is filled with colorful characters as well, with Cheryl Hines stealing scenes as Kate’s boss. What resonates, however, is the humanity of all the characters. According to the stars, “The stories that happen in our show happen to anyone and everyone—whether it’s about heartbreak, screwing up, making stupid mistakes, or trying to become truly comfortable in one’s skin. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what language you speak or how you communicate. So much of the human experience is the same. We hope that people who watch the show, whether they hear or don’t, can see a part of themselves in Kate and Michael.”
This Close’s greatest strength is its honesty, which brings out both the humor and the pain of the characters lives, and it’s authentic honesty that couldn’t have been achieved without these creators behind the camera. As the series continues, I look forward to more laughs, more insight, and more stories that encourage us to not just listen, but look closely at ourselves. From Stern and Feldman: “While we are happy to share a story about the friendship between two characters who are deaf, it is very important to us that people know it is just one story about that experience. It is really a story about being human … that is our common thread.”
New episodes of This Close are available Thursdays on Sundance Now.
Jessica Mason is a writer and lawyer living in Portland, Oregon passionate about corgis, fandom, and awesome girls. Follow her on Twitter at @FangirlingJess.
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