A gay man and his best female pal navigate their twenties together in a city — that’s the premise of a slew of sitcoms from NBC’s “Will & Grace” to Comedy Central’s “The Other Two.” Sundance’s “This Close” modifies it in a unique way: the characters are both deaf.
Created by and starring Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern — both deaf in real life — “This Close” (Season 2 premieres Thursday at midnight) is a half-hour dramedy following LA-based friends Kate and Michael as they share relatable experiences such as romantic and career triumphs and failures. It’s the first television series of its kind.
“There’s never been a show created by deaf people before,” Stern, 39, and Feldman, 31, say in a collective email, “so we’re hoping that we are helping to create a model that people in the future can follow. It can all be done — you just have to be willing to remain open and to be creative and flexible in doing things that are maybe a little bit different.”
Episodes feature a blend of American Sign Language with subtitles and spoken dialogue; Stern speaks and many of the show’s supporting actors — such as Cheryl Hines (“Curb Your Enthusiasm”) — can hear.
The new season finds Kate and Michael navigating standard TV show plots, such as them running into ex-fiancés and taking camping trips that go awry, in addition to deaf-specific issues such as Michael having to stay in the hospital with staffers who don’t know how to deal with deaf patients.
“This Close” employed a whopping 25 deaf people both in front of and behind the camera. But not all hearing crew members know American Sign Language. So how does that work?
“In the writers’ room, we figured out it was best to type things out on a big television screen that we had, rather than to dictate and then have them go through two different language translations,” say Feldman and Stern. Also, a letter from the American Sign Language alphabet is printed on the daily call sheet. “So by the end of both seasons, most of our crew was pretty comfortable with expressing themselves in sign.”
Stern and Feldman also employed two on-set interpreters for the duration of the shoot, and another in the writers’ room. One of their biggest challenges was purely logistical: It’s difficult to make any last-minute scheduling changes when you can’t make a quick phone call.
“Unless we have an interpreter on [retainer] for several months, we have to work around their schedules most of the time. We can’t just jump on the phone, and we have to do everything through e-mail or text. Most of that is because there’s no precedent for this,” Stern says.
The deaf community’s reaction to the show has been largely positive, say Stern and Feldman.
“We’ve met people who have felt ‘seen’ for the first time in their lives, and others who don’t necessarily feel represented by the show. The mantle of being ‘the first’ can be a heavy one to carry — because then that has the burden of expectation — that the story you’re telling needs to be one that the entire community can relate to.
“The deaf community, like any other minority community, has a vast and varied spectrum, and we’ve never thought that one story is enough. We need more stories about our community and more people telling them.”