This Close is a show about friendship, but it has so much more to say.
Created by Shoshannah Stern (Supernatural, Weeds) and Josh Feldman, who are both deaf, This Close’s depiction of best friends in the big city isn’t necessarily revolutionary, but its mission to create bigger roles for deaf characters—and focus on their inner lives—makes it a standout in a sea of shows about flailing adults. There’s a bit of a Difficult People vibe to the dynamic between Stern’s Kate, who works in PR, and Feldman’s Michael, an artist and writer. They are two friends who get each other in ways no one else will, whose closeness often rubs people the wrong way. Billy and Julie’s shared language in Difficult People is pop culture; in This Close, Kate and Michael’s is something much deeper.
Produced by entertainment company Super Deluxe, This Close is Sundance Now’s latest attempt at original dramedy, following up the 2017 David Mitchell and Robert Webb series Back. The show, which will air weekly, was also born out of Stern and Feldman wanting to see more characters like themselves on-screen, and not in roles of pity or where deaf characters “teach” people something. Kate’s recently gotten engaged to boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford); Michael’s reeling from a breakup with on-again, off-again boyfriend Ryan (Colt Prattes). Their significant others are both hearing-abled and trying their best to learn how to communicate—on several levels.
It’s refreshing to watch a show that doesn’t rely on verbal dialogue; so much of This Close is Kate and Michael signing to each other, swiftly summing up emotions and grievances and jokes with a gesture or look. As this happens, there’s often just extended background noise, the sound of the city breathing behind them. This Close demands that you pay close attention; it isn’t a show you can leave on in the background, nor is it designed to be. During a post-screening Q&A in Austin, Texas, last week, director Andrew Ahn said he had to reframe shots to show the hands and faces of the actors in order to honestly depict communication, and that sound design was even more important here.
It is designed for subtleties: In one episode with Kate’s boss, played with the perfect amount of L.A. PR maven obliviousness by Cheryl Hines, we hear how she experiences sound when her hearing aids aren’t working. When Michael does an in-store Q&A about his graphic novel, an audience member asks why there aren’t any deaf character in his book. He signs that it would be a “harder sell.” Michael and Kate are put in wheelchairs to pre-board a flight to Seattle, but they make the most of it. These moments are likely played for laughs, but also point out that the hearing-abled don’t truly know those experiences.
This Close hinges on the same issues as so many other modern dramedies: sex, work, family, (lack of) ambition, love. Kate accidentally eats a pot brownie at work and Michael rescues her. Michael makes risky choices after his breakup and numbs himself with alcohol. Their friendship weathers relatable ups and downs, but This Close doesn’t shy away from showing how Kate and Michael’s co-dependent bond can often elbow out those around them, namely significant others.
The series was adapted from their webseries Fridays (later titled The Chances), which presented a similar premise, though Kate was just married instead of just engaged. That series’ infectious energy has mostly moved over to This Close, though it does dip into well-tread territory at times, like the passing-of-seasons-shows-deterioration-of-relationship episode that takes place in one house. Feldman, who does not speak (Stern does), plays Michael close to the vest; his sad eyes often foreshadow what’s to come, but he doesn’t always find the bigger emotional moments that might give him more presence. At times it feels like it needs more scope. In episode 2 Kate lands model Nyle DiMarco, who is also deaf, an ad campaign because she sees his hands in a way her co-workers don’t. It’s an interesting look into a cutthroat world, and I found myself wanting more of that.
An emotional if somewhat traditional finale neatly sets up season 2, and at just six episodes it does leave you wanting more. Kate and Michael’s natural chemistry is the center of the show, and This Close is a promising first chapter.