"This Close," which premieres Wednesday over the premium streaming service Sundance Now, makes a little bit of history as the first television series created, written by and starring deaf artists. (Each one of those things may be historic on its own.) Not surprisingly, the show, from and featuring Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, first called "Fridays," was born on the web, the place you go when, because you want something done, you have to do it yourself. A second version, titled "The Chances," was produced under the aegis of the youth-oriented entertainment house SuperDeluxe; it was featured at Sundance in 2017, as part of the festival's short form episodic showcase. And a year later, here we are. It was a long road, but it was worth it.
Stern and Feldman play best friends Kate and Michael. Kate works for a PR firm; she speaks, read lips and can hear a little (when her hearing aids work — we get an audio impression of what it's like when they don't). Michael, who doesn't speak, is a graphic novelist with an award-winning book under his belt.
In the opening episode they are headed to Seattle together, where Michael is booked for an in-store appearance. Kate has not told Michael that she has gotten engaged to her boyfriend Danny (Zach Gilford), in part because Michael has recently ended an engagement with his fiancé Ryan (Colt Prattes). But it is also the case that Michael and Danny do not much like each other; indeed, Kate and Michael are so tight, and Stern and Feldman so connected, that it is somewhat of a disappointment when the other main characters enter the picture. (Meaning no disrespect to the actors.)
None is at his or her best when we meet them. (The title after all, is a phrase usually used to indicate failure.) Danny, a poster boy for male pride and insecurity, is hiding the fact that he has lost his job and compensating with acts of extravagance. Michael is unable to finish so much as a page of his next book, and as a consequence (or a cause) has been drinking too much. Ryan is the person who broke Michel's heart, and so must earn our trust (and Michael's).
The show has a rhythm all its own, one that is easy to fall in step with. The long stretches without spoken dialogue gives "This Close" an original flavor – it engages the eye more than the ear – and when someone does speak, it's jarring, like suddenly hearing inelegant American voices in a French cafe.
There are minor flaws. Some details of Michael's comic-world career don't ring true; some elements of Kate's work plot line feel a little too convenient. More crucial, it's never clear why Kate and Danny are together, even with an episode-long flashback; we have to take it on faith that there's something between them electric enough to have led to an engagement.
As in most television series, the characters' circle of friends consists mainly of each other, with Kate and Michael comprising a deaf community of two. (When Michael tells Kate, "I'm going to be with my people," it's his anonymous gay people he means.) "America's Next Top Model" winner Nyle DiMarco, as a renamed version of himself, is the only other deaf character with lines; a party scene late in the series suggests Kate does indeed have other deaf friends, but they are all just extras.
That Stern and Feldman are such charismatic performers, with such good chemistry, bends us to their side, so that you have to pay attention to see the extent to which they stand in their own way, that what's holding them back isn't their deafness, however much it may have shaped them. (And it shaped them differently.) Everyone here is guilty of holding things back, of failing to communicate, whether they speak or sign or hear or don't.
Kate: "Please talk to me."
Danny: "There's nothing to talk about."
There is a kind of farcical element to this as well, the sort of things that happen whenever a language is imperfectly understood — and this is a bilingual series, certainly — with a new twist on what it means to speak behind someone's back.
Directed by Andrew Ahn, the six 30-minute episodes are handsomely fashioned. Excellent on-screen support comes from Cheryl Hines, the series' most expressly comical character, as Kate's imperiously flighty boss, and a nuanced Marlee Matlin, who may be tired of being described as the only deaf performer to have won a lead actress Oscar, as Michael's loving but hard to handle mother in a Difficult Thanksgiving episode.
Like the characters, the series looks forward to a time when their difference is a subject neither for mocking comedy nor social commentary, as has been true at some time of every non-white, non-straight group since before the movies learned to talk. There is a little bit of commentary here – sometimes played as comedy – in that Kate and Danny find themselves at cross-purposes with an uncomprehending, sometimes patronizing hearing world. But these are not the series' best scenes by far; most of those take place between Kate and Michael, whether they are in or out of joint with one another.
Stern, who has had regular or recurring parts on "Jericho," "Weeds," "Threat Matrix" and "Supernatural" (and has played Helen Keller on "Drunk History"), is relatively well-known. I could find no acting credits other than this for Feldman – which, given the number of roles available to non-speaking deaf actors, or deaf actors period, is not especially surprising. ("It would have been harder to sell," Michael replies when asked why he didn't make the main character deaf.) Both are terrific.
Where: Sundance Now
When: Anytime, starting Wednesday
Rating:TV-MA (not suitable for children under 17)