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.