Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman’s new Sundance Now drama “This Close” is the first show written, produced, and created by deaf people, and with it, the duo is carving out a place in the television landscape not only for themselves but for others in their community.
“When I first moved to Los Angeles, there was this idealism, this perspective of ‘I will do well enough where I won’t even be seen as a deaf actor, I’ll just be seen as an actor,’ but through that process I learned that I was, for lack of a better word, trying to whitewash myself — just paint over who I really was,” Stern tells Variety. “At the end of the day, I am a deaf person, I am a deaf actor, and I can’t separate that. You can try to succeed at work without trying to paint over who you really are, and you can be seen as someone who does a good job without putting yourself in a box.”
Similarly, Feldman admits that he never used to write deaf characters, in great part because when he looked around at the media that was out there, he didn’t see any and therefore assumed they “would not sell.” But now that he and Stern are finally writing characters like themselves, he feels they, and the project overall, “rings more true” than projects of the past.
“We’re hoping to show that representation matters, not only in front of the camera, but behind the camera as well. And I think every minority group, every community has the right to tell their own story,” Stern says.
Stern and Feldman not only created, wrote, and produced the six-episode series, but they also star in it. Though the two have been friends for a while — and come from similar backgrounds — they felt it was important when writing a show about fictional best friends to differentiate between the characters.
“I always say that Kate and Michael are mirror images of each other. Michael’s in his head too much, and Kate needs to be in her head more. Michael can be very dark, and Kate maybe needs to be a little darker — not to just gloss over everything so much. So the two of them become two halves of a whole, for better and for worse,” Stern says. “I know a lot of people who are like Kate and discovered their identities later, so we thought it would be interesting to have that mirrored and to have Michael sort of as Kate’s guide.”
The characters are also at very different places both professionally and personally when the show starts. Michael is experiencing a terrible bout of writers’ block that is keeping him from delivering the promised sequel to his successful graphic novel. He is also struggling with drinking due to a family history of alcoholism, along with a broken heart after breaking up with his fiance (Colt Prattes).
“We wanted the characters to be very relatable, and I think it’s kind of a nice access point when somebody’s heartbroken because everyone can relate to that,” Feldman says. “Personally, I’ve always been fascinated to see people go through break-ups on screen because I want them to heal. I want to see them hit their bottom and then move up.”
Meanwhile, Kate is recently engaged to her boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford) and plugging away at a job in a public relations firm where she is doing great work but not rewarded with any clients of her own just yet.
“We’ve always felt that the heart of the show is about communication, so we thought it would be really cool if Kate’s job dealt with communication directly,” says Stern. “That’s what PR does: you have to facilitate that communication between people. So we felt it was a good fit, especially with her personality type.”
Feldman thinks Kate and Michael bring out the best in each other through a “push-pull” and shorthand they have with the slang of American Sign Language. But he admits that they’re “not always ready for that push when we get it.”
“Michael tells Kate, ‘You’re always going to be that deaf girl,’ [and] that’s a good push, but Kate should have called Michael out earlier about his drinking, and she doesn’t,” Feldman says. “Friendship can be tricky in that sense: sometimes you’re not sure when to give that push, when to take that push.”
In order to expand the world, Stern and Feldman wanted to pair their characters with hearing romantic partners to show different dynamics. Both Prattes’ character of Ryan and Gilford as Danny learn to sign for their partners — but to different levels of success, which represents how much work the characters are willing to put in to the relationships.
“With both relationships we really want it to be in the gray,” Stern says. “We want people to either love, maybe hate, each dynamic in the relationship — and the person behind that dynamic in the relationship because sometimes the dynamic that you have with someone really changes who you are.”
As the season unfolds, both Kate and Michael will have to confront things about themselves individually and how they relate to their relationships with each other and romantic partners. While they more often than not make each other the priority, this can come at the detriment of a romance, as well as sacrificing one’s self in a way that isn’t always healthy. “You have to be your best self to be happy, and I don’t think either character is his or her best self yet,” Stern says.
“This Close” premieres Feb. 14 on Sundance Now.