In the second episode of This Close, a new dramedy debuting tomorrow on Sundance’s digital subscription service Sundance Now, publicist Kate, who is deaf, finds herself on a panel filled with disabled actors (one played by Walter White Jr. himself, RJ Mitte, who has cerebral palsy), a last-second fill-in for a deaf American’s Next Top Model contestant. As the other panelists vent very real frustrations about Hollywood’s relationship to the disabled — including the number of disabled characters played by non-disabled actors — Kate sits, mortified over how little she belongs on this stage, until the moderator asks her for her thoughts on being disabled, both in showbiz and in life.
“You focus on our disability,” Kate complains, “but not who we are.”
This tends to be the problem with many Hollywood stories about people with disabilities, whether the characters are played by disabled actors or not. It’s even worse with the deaf community, which is barely portrayed at all: for decades, it was basically just Marlee Matlin popping up here and there, until Switched at Birth came along to mix deaf culture in with traditional teen soap storylines. On This Close, Kate’s best friend Michael is an acclaimed comic book artist who is also deaf; asked why his latest graphic novel doesn’t feature any deaf characters, he admits, “It would have been harder to sell.”
The series was created by Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, who play Kate and Michael. Stern (Jericho, Weeds, Supernatural) is one of the few regularly working deaf actors in the business; Feldman’s opportunities have been more limited, in part because he doesn’t speak. So they decided the best way to showcase themselves would be to tell a story they would want to see: one where the characters are deaf, but are defined by so much more than that.
When the series begins, Kate has just gotten engaged to boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford from Friday Night Lights), while Michael, who is gay, is getting over the messy breakup of a long-term relationship with Ryan (Colt Prattes). She struggles to be appreciated at work, and with the fear that Danny (who signs, but only a little) will never fully understand her. He drinks too much, battles writer’s block, and engages in self-destructive behavior whenever he and Ryan cross paths. It’s a co-dependent, at times mutually harmful friendship, sketched out in details that go far deeper than the fact that the two leads sign with each other.
But This Close also has plenty to say about interactions between the deaf world and the hearing one, and is designed to be consumed by members of both. Long scenes feature Kate and Michael signing, with subtitles, but they take place in a world otherwise filled with sound. Kate has hearing aids that can only do so much, and every now and then the soundtrack will shift to a staticky, intermittent word collage to give a sense of what she’s getting out of a conversation with colleagues at work. Michael’s brother Jacob (Moshe Kasher) is hearing but only signs when he’s conversing with Michael and/or their mother (played by Matlin); when a frustrated Danny asks Jacob, “Can you voice, please?” in an attempt to keep up with the conversation, Jacob barks “No,” and goes right back to signing. When Michael goes out clubbing, he finds some level of reassurance from feeling the thump of the bass. The show has a musical score, and much of its humor comes from the everyday challenges and unexpected benefits of its heroes’ deafness: flying to an event on Michael’s book tour, they’re blissfully unaware of the crying baby a few rows back, but Michael runs afoul of airport police who mistake his animated signing for a threat.
The season is smartly compact — six episodes, each well under a half-hour, focusing on a small group of characters and clearly made on a modest budget — though it still runs out of steam a bit towards the end. (At a minimum, the flashback-filled fifth episode, which covers the last few years before the series begins, feels unnecessary by the time we get there.) But both Stern and the less-seasoned Feldman are appealing performers who’ve written themselves characters they know and can play well, in both their righteous moments and their deeply flawed ones. And even when the story sags here and there, This Close is a reminder of the creative value of more inclusive storytelling: the mere fact of Kate and Michael’s deafness makes the most tired of cliches (like a twist at the end of the final episode) feel completely new because we’re experiencing it through the kinds of characters who’ve never experienced it on screen before.