The creators and stars of This Close have a natural chemistry on screen that stands out even in real life—which is just part of what makes the series about deaf best friends so charming. Sitting down with Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman (and their interpreters—many thanks to them for their help) at the SeriesFest television festival in Denver, the pair naturally deferred to each other as they discussed the upcoming second season of the Sundance TV series.
“It’s just really nice because we’re partners and so I feel like sometimes I don’t always trust myself and I can doubt myself and I think that’s normal, but then I don’t doubt him because he’s not me,” Stern said. “Somebody was asking me before who usually freaks out more and I feel like we take turns.”
Feldman agreed, saying that “if you’re a solo showrunner and you have that moment of doubt, there’s no one else to take over in that moment, but with us we can rely on one another.”
Have they ever both had that moment of doubt at the same time? They looked at each other, smiling. “Not yet!” they signed in unison.
This Close owes a lot to a web series version produced by Stern and Feldman which made its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017, leading quickly to it becoming a series for the digital platform Sundance Now. The most important thing the web series version did: give them confidence in the story they had to tell about these characters.
“Because of the seven-minute format, we got to know the characters really well and then we felt like we were really developing our strong backstory and developing strong voices for them,” Stern said. “And then we were able to move that to a half hour dramedy.”
In addition, Feldman said, “the web series gave us our first feedback from the public, so that we knew it was something that people wanted to see. Hearing people say that they wanted to see more of it gave us motivation.”
The tone, they noted, shifted from the web series to TV; while the shorter length lent itself to a lighter feel online, going to a half-hour format gave them more opportunity to take things darker. (According to Feldman, “I’m heavy and she’s light, and so we balance each other out.”)
That said, the comedy remained a strong undercurrent of the series from the beginning, including a memorable sequence in the very first episode where Kate and Michael doze comfortably on a chaotic and noisy plane flight. Stern said that the scene was one where, on the page, the joke wasn’t immediately apparent to everyone, and she and Feldman had to tell their collaborators “you have to trust us. This scene is important. Trust us. We shot it and I said, if you don’t like it, that’s fine. You can hate it. And you can edit it later. And then once we did, they were like, ohhhhhhh.”
Not only is the scene extremely funny, but it meant that for future scripts, if they’re including a sequence very specific to the deaf experience, Stern said that “we can put in parentheses, ‘this is going to be like the airplane scene. Trust us.’ Then they say, ‘okay.’”
While the airplane scene is just one way that This Close emphasizes specific aspects of what it means to have hearing loss, they came to Season Two planning to experiment a lot more with the concept of sound, including the fact that Kate and Michael have different levels of hearing loss.
“Our goal for this season was to make each episode feel like like its own half hour movie. So whether it’s the format or the tone or whatever, we’ll be playing with that a lot,” Feldman said.
“I think people often see things as very binary, and think that deaf means there’s no sound,” Stern said. “Sound is still a part of deaf people’s lives. It’s just interpreted differently: Michael’s perspective and then Kate’s perspective, just individually, are very different. And so there’s something very subtle about their own experiences. But then going into Season Two, we already have a roadmap and so we can really take it further.”
Feldman added that “we also came up with some specific experiences that hearing people didn’t realize would be different for deaf people—like the hospital or camping in the woods. With Season One, we had to be a little bit more simple and not too heavy on the deaf stuff. Just in case you know, it would alienate people. We knew that wasn’t going to happen now for Season Two so, we believe the audience is more ready to delve into specific deaf-lived experiences.”
Another experiment: Two episodes will be standalone adventures, one focusing on Kate and one focusing on Michael. “We’re really excited to show the value of the other person, how the person really impacts their life,” Stern said. “I think it’s really going to anchor the season, and I’m excited.”
It’s a choice that makes sense, because at its core, This Close remains a show about the friendship between its two leads, letting the characters reveal themselves as flawed individuals. “Everybody has their fatal flaw. I mean everybody has one. So it’s almost like, um, like a superpower. Like it’s one and the same, right?” Stern said.
“We always talk about, you know, why the characters make those decisions, whether they’re bad decisions or whether they’re good decisions,” Feldman added. “We want to think behind the decision-making so that that character is understood, and we want it to be real. Humans make mistakes, they make good and bad choices, but we always come from a place where they think about it.”
While they don’t yet have a greenlight beyond Season Two, they do have a five year plan for the series, one that they had ready from the very beginning of the pitching process. And while things can change, “we definitely do have an end game in mind,” Feldman said.
In the meantime, they’re loving the process of creating the show, an experience that they’ve worked to make sure is special not just for them, but for their cast and crew. “For Season Two, 95 percent of our crew actually came back. Meaning that they turned down other work. That never happens. So peak crews turning down other work is unheard of, but they came to work here. So it’s like, thank you. We’re so thankful.”
This Close premieres September 12th on Sundance TV.
Liz Shannon Miller is a Los Angeles-based writer and editor, and has been talking about television on the Internet since the very beginnings of the Internet. She recently spent five years as TV Editor at Indiewire, and her work has also been published by The New York Times, Vulture, Variety, the AV Club, the Hollywood Reporter, IGN, The Verge, and Thought Catalog. She is also a produced playwright, a host of podcasts, and a repository of “X-Files” trivia. Follow her on Twitter at @lizlet.