The need for more diversity in Hollywood is a popular topic of conversation these days. But at least one group tends to get left out of the discussion.
“There have been some deaf characters on television, but they are usually there so the hearing characters can learn something from them,” Josh Feldman said. “And then they send the deaf characters back into the shadows.”
He said it with his hands. Sitting in a mellow cafe on a dilapidated strip of Melrose Avenue, he and his writing partner, Shoshannah Stern, carved shapes in the air to tell animated stories, volleys of sign language zinging across the table between them and their two interpreters.
It was at this cafe that the pair first conceived a comic web series about two deaf best friends like themselves living in Los Angeles. On a warm winter morning three years later, they returned to discuss the television show that resulted from it: “This Close,” debuting Wednesday, Feb. 14, on SundanceTV’s streaming platform, Sundance Now.
Created, written by and starring Ms. Stern and Mr. Feldman, the show follows the adventures of two deaf pals in Los Angeles. But the characters’ deafness figures as just one sliver of an effervescent dramedy about friendship, romance, sex and ambition, its sweet but gritty tone inspired by series like “Looking,” “Girls” and “Transparent.”
Kate (Ms. Stern) is an exuberant entertainment publicist determined to make her way in the world without any special accommodations; neither her boss (Cheryl Hines) nor her fiancé (Zach Gilford) make much effort to use sign language, expecting Kate to keep up with their conversation. Michael (Mr. Feldman) is a melancholy gay graphic novelist tortured by writer’s block and trying to blot out the pain of a broken relationship with liquor and sex.
The six-episode show is adapted from “Fridays,” Ms. Stern’s and Mr. Feldman’s rom-comish web series that so impressed Sundance the channel decided to make “This Close” the debut offering for its new digital streaming service.
“I thought to myself, have I ever seen a show where the characters are deaf but it doesn’t define them?” said Jan Diedrichsen, Sundance Now’s general manager. “This felt like a fully realized vision of a life where deafness was just one part of it.”
Ms. Stern grew up in the Bay Area dreaming of becoming an actor, even though there were few deaf role models on screen. For her seventh birthday she asked her mother for an agent. (The answer was no.) Later, during her senior year at Gallaudet University, a liberal arts college for the deaf in Washington D.C., she flew to Los Angeles for an audition and decided to stay.
“I thought, I will just convince people that it would be interesting to see me on screen and that it won’t matter that I’m deaf,” she recalled, signing emphatically.
Ms. Stern’s first major role came as an antiterrorism expert in the short-lived 2003 ABC series “Threat Matrix,” and she has since become one of the most visible deaf actresses in Hollywood, appearing in series like “Weeds, “Lie to Me” and “Supernatural.” “I was always the sole deaf person on set,” she said.
She met Mr. Feldman, an aspiring novelist and screenwriter, through mutual friends, and tried to help him get a foothold in Hollywood as a writer’s assistant. But people were generally unwilling to meet with him.
“They would ask, ‘How would we communicate with him?’ and ‘How can he write dialogue if he doesn’t speak?,’” Ms. Stern said. She decided that one way to change ideas about deafness, on screen and off, was for the duo to collaborate on a script.
Mr. Feldman had never tried to write a deaf character, he said, because “I thought no one would want to pay for anything that had deaf people in it.” But Ms. Stern inspired him to try, and the result was “Fridays.” After shooting a pilot for $250 with themselves in the lead roles, the duo put it on Kickstarter, hoping to raise enough cash to produce four episodes for YouTube.
Pledges quickly shot past their $6,000 goal, much of the money donated by people who weren’t deaf, Ms. Stern said. Also intrigued was Super Deluxe, an entertainment company owned by Turner. Super Deluxe produced five polished web episodes and screened them at the 2017 Sundance Film Festival, where Mr. Diedrichsen saw in the show’s “singular vision” an ideal original series for Sundance Now.
Ms. Stern and Mr. Feldman revamped the concept to delve into pricklier emotional territory, with the help of the director Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”).
Much of the material in “This Close” feels universal: Love affairs blossom and shatter, family members create emotional turmoil. But some of the stories naturally hinge on deaf-specific experiences, like a harrowing scene — based on something that actually happened to Ms. Stern’s brother — in which a drunk Michael is yanked off an airplane, utterly confused and unable to communicate with airport police.
At the center of the show is Kate and Michael’s codependent friendship, which sometimes leaves hearing characters feeling left out. “We did a lot of two shots so that you could see both Josh and Shoshannah signing together,” Mr. Ahn said. “It makes it feel like they are in a bubble of their own.”
Making television from the perspective of deaf characters forced everyone involved to rethink the usual ways of doing things. “So much of narrative filmmaking convention is based in a hearing world, but if you have a super tight close-up, you won’t see the hands,” Mr. Ahn said.
Read the complete article on the New York Times.