IN THE first episode of “This Close”, Kate and Michael set out on a trip to Seattle. One airport official, on learning that they are both deaf, tries to communicate by screaming “CAN I SEE YOUR BOARDING PASSES?” Another offers them a wheelchair; a TSA agent uses wildly unintelligible pantomime to ask Michael if there’s anything in his pockets. With every ignorant or misinformed move, the show lets the viewers in on the absurdity of the interaction by way of an exasperated look shared between the leads, a witty response (signed to each other or vocalised by Kate), or simply an eye roll. In following two best friends’ lives, “This Close” explores the experiences of deaf people navigating a world structured for the hearing. 

The six-episode series is the first television show written, created by and starring people who are deaf. Like all 20-something year-olds, Kate and Michael (Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman) are stumbling their way through life. Michael is newly single and grappling with writer’s block as he works on a graphic novel. Kate, who is struggling to progress in her job at a PR firm, is newly engaged to a hearing fiancé. With each new situation they face, the bonds of their friendship are also tested.

Ms Stern says the idea for the series grew out of her real-life friendship with Mr Feldman, and “the special sort of weight” their relationship has in a busy city like Los Angeles. She hopes that the narrative helps to illustrate the fact that “it doesn’t matter what language you speak or how you communicate yourself, so much of the human experience is the same.” But the series does also highlight the characters’ different perspectives on those experiences. With each new hook up or awkward dinner, the audience gets an honest glimpse into both the frustrations (Kate’s hearing aid cuts out in the middle of her boss’ instructions) and novelties (Kate and Michael are able to sleep soundly on a flight filled with screaming babies and coughing passengers) that make up their lives as deaf people. 

It is, of course, not the first time deaf characters have been featured on screen. David Bower starred as David, the brother to Hugh Grant’s Charles, in “Four Weddings and a Funeral” (1994). “Baby Driver” (2017) featured a getaway driver with tinnitus, whose foster father can’t hear. “Switched at Birth”, which concluded its fifth and final season last year, told the story of two girls (one of whom loses her hearing) taken home by the wrong families at the hospital. But in each of these examples, there is an interest in how the hearing characters are influenced by or benefit from the deaf characters’ otherness—think of the final altar scene in “Four Weddings”, where David’s signing allows him to communicate with Charles privately, and in translating to the congregation Charles can admit his inability to go through with the nuptials. “This Close” turns that dynamic upside down. It makes the deaf characters the focal point, and encourages the audience to be a part of their world.

The show started out as a crowdfunded web series, five episodes of which were screened during the 2017 Sundance film festival. Jan Diedrichsen, general manager for Sundance Now, a streaming service, was immediately captivated by it. “Here you had a story and you had characters where deafness was one part of who they were, but they were so much more layered and so much more interesting,” he says. The show was expanded from its web format, and a month was spent filming in Los Angeles. 

The multilingual narrative required making some behind-the-scenes adjustments (18 members of the cast and crew were deaf). Interpreters were hired for pre-production and on-set communication; Cheryl Hines, who also stars, told the New York Times that it “changed the rhythm of shooting a little bit…but it’s like when you shoot in Montreal and the crew speaks French—it feels different but becomes normal very quickly.” An American Sign Language (ASL) master was consulted on cinematography to make sure that the actors’ signs and facial expressions were framed correctly in each shot. Sound was an important element, often manipulated to illustrate what a deaf character might be hearing at any given moment. This is not necessarily complete silence (for example, when Kate’s hearing aid cuts out, the audience can hear pieces of the conversation around her, but it is garbled). Andrew Ahn, the director, took ASL lessons and towards the end of the production could communicate with his deaf colleagues using sign. 

In other words, the team tackled the process with the sensitivity and collaboration needed for such a distinct project. They came away with a nuanced portrayal of deaf characters that pays tribute to their efforts and illustrates the creativity that is found in diversity.