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This Close Review 2018 TV-Show Series Season Cast Crew Online
Creators: Joshua Feldman, Shoshannah Stern
Stars: Shoshannah Stern, Joshua Feldman, Zach Gilford
Review: It isn’t easy to stand out these days in the ranks of half-hour personal dramedies, where shows like “Better Things,” “Insecure” and “Atlanta” are among the best and most challenging series on television.
“This Close,” streaming on Sundance Now beginning Wednesday, isn’t at those shows’ level — it’s more conventional, with familiar relationship and family situations, and it doesn’t really have a distinct sensibility. But it’s funny and poignant in ways we haven’t seen before, and more deftly directed and impressively cast than you’d expect for an original series on a small streaming service. It’s also, at six episodes totaling about 150 minutes, an easy binge.
The deaf actors Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern created and wrote “This Close,” expanding on an earlier no-budget online series called “Fridays.” They also star in it as Michael and Kate, best friends living in Los Angeles. Michael is a gay artist in a downward spiral after a breakup, blocked on his graphic novel and often drunk; Kate is a snarkily funny spitfire who works at a public-relations firm and is engaged to a hearing man, Danny (Zach Gilford), who hasn’t told her that he lost his job.
Michael and Kate are also deaf, a fact that is both secondary and central to the show. The questions are universal: Will Kate and Danny find a way to trust each other? Will Michael and his ex, Ryan (Colt Prattes), get back together? Will Michael meet his deadline? But deafness is the inescapable context of each story line, amplifying and complicating the characters’ pain. Being shut out and lied to, as Kate is by Danny, is an even greater betrayal when communicating with the world is your daily struggle.
Mr. Feldman and Ms. Stern get their points across in mostly low-key and cleverly comic ways, with an occasional slide into heavy-handedness, usually involving Danny, who’s awfully clueless even by the low standards contemporary dramedies tend to set for straight white boyfriends.
Deafness has its benefits, as seen in a shot of Kate and Michael blissfully sleeping on an airplane amid screaming babies and hacking coughers. It also confers the ability to say nasty, smutty things about hearing people right in front of them, which is always good for a laugh. And a lot of things are just funnier when they’re signed rather than said, like “I might or might not have clogged your toilet” or “What, are you going to yell at me now?”
The director Andrew Ahn (“Spa Night”) gives the show a languid indie-movie feel. He’s also clearly thought about how to adapt to, and exploit, working with deaf actors. “This Close” is quiet, but not to an extreme — there’s a lot of plaintive pop music on the soundtrack, and Ms. Stern voices much of her dialogue.
Visually, however, it has a silent-movie quality, with the camera nearly always focusing on the hands and mouths of those speaking or signing, to catch the many varieties of expressiveness. (This takes literal form when a character gives a theatrical, Chaplin-esque performance of signing at the dinner table.) Silent communication also allows for several conversations to take place simultaneously and privately right next to each other, something Mr. Ahn employs for humorous effect.
Perhaps more contrived, but still effective: the moment we first hear the normally silent Michael’s voice, which doesn’t come until the season is nearly over.Ms. Stern, a veteran actress known for her roles in “Jericho” and “Weeds,” and Mr. Feldman, a writer with little acting experience, are both good, as are Cheryl Hines, Keiko Agena and Mr. Prattes in supporting roles. The pioneering deaf actor Marlee Matlin appears as Michael’s mother, giving a nicely engaging and relaxed performance.
As sharp as “This Close” often is with the details, it also has a dangerous tendency to slide toward clichés about things like sex, drinking and workplace dynamics. The closing moments of the season feature a cliffhanger that may reflect a serious danger for deaf people (and that gains an extra dimension from Kate’s obliviousness to what’s happened) but is a head-smacker in dramatic terms. Still, it would be nice if there were a Season 2.