Drama, especially drama going for the realism of Easy or Transparent, needs the right hook. This Close has a relatively compelling one—it’s created by and stars deaf actor/writers Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman. Upending half of the audio-visual medium to tell unheard stories invites plenty of curious goodwill, but the series does so little with its fascinating premise that the whole thing becomes a slog. A miscommunicated series about the myriad ways we can miscommunicate, This Close is farther from the mark it tries to hit than its title implies.
Michael (Feldman) is a graphic novelist and a sad sack seeking solace from his busted heart (thanks to his ex, played by Colt Prattes) in liquor and weed. Kate (Stern) is in PR with an unemployed fiancé (Zach Gilford) that she could take or leave. They’re best friends, unhappy, and dull as all hell. It’s like a quieter Girls with the entitlement replaced with exasperation and the bad sex replaced with…well, equally bad sex.
Stern is the better actor of the pair (she’s had more experience, after all) but her character also has the benefit of having the greater nuance. Neither get too much of an inner life that isn’t directly connected to season-long plot points, but at least Kate seems like she exists outside of her problems. That said, her problems are huge. Her fiancé is such a bad fit that, aside from the secrets he keeps and the general basic bro-ness of his whole situation, he can barely sign. How are you going to marry a deaf woman and not speak sign language fluently?
Sign language is the principal language of the show, too. Rather than completely emulate the deaf experience with silent (or fuzzed) audio fidelity, as it briefly does in the second episode “Who We Are” and in the season finale, the majority of its interactions are sign language-based conversations. There’s little drama included in these until someone that doesn’t speak sign language barges in and derails everything.
With its conversation and situations often hinge upon the main characters being ignored, talked over, or (sometimes literally) misinterpreted, the defining emotion of the series is frustration. Impotence is a second runner-up, which comes naturally when everyone treats you as a child, alien, or moron. This is the strongest, if most unpleasant, part of the show comes from. Pent-up rage at a world that fails to make itself clear, to communicate effectively, is what the show bestows upon its deaf characters.
This is one way This Close> shows that it’s ambitiously trying to define two characters outside of their disability while simultaneously making each episode specific to the deaf experience. Nobody wants to be defined by one aspect of themselves, but when there’s something this big in your life, it will color everything that happens to you. It’s as contradictory as it must feel in real life, adding to the restless dissatisfaction that is the result of attacking these problems head-on. Tired plotlines and contrived situations get a little boost of energy from their niche angle (lots of jokes about not hearing sex, whether it be porn or good ol’ fashioned through-the-wall neighbor banging) but never enough to be as compelling as an idea that wasn’t well-trod.
Andrew Ahn’s direction is similarly rote—sometimes by design (when deaf people have conversations, your shot choices are constrained by the need to see all the lines being delivered and the need to see both hands and faces) and sometimes not. In order to do a unique language justice, the formal language of TV must be bent and tweaked to fit, not the other way around. It often felt like the director was simply “making it work” rather than taking the chance to do something new. This would normally result in simple blandness, but when there’s so little spoken dialogue and with its predominantly visual form of communication housed inside another visual medium, it becomes a death knell for the attention span. The subtitles, the on-screen texting, and the identical framing choices make the series feel tedious.
The one thing that adds to the atmosphere is the exaggerated mixing of the tactile sound effects. A hand tapping or slapping, a page turning, a phone vibrating—these are just a little louder than normal, with enough emphasis that they command attention. The other thing—okay, there are two things—is that driving while having a sign language conversation causes me an undue amount of anxiety. You have to look away from the road. It’s built in.
This is the only thing that ever got a visceral reaction from me. Well, except from Michael’s writer’s block plotline. Watching someone struggle with writer’s block is about as fun as suffering from it. It’s like watching someone toss and turn in bed. It’s a larger personal problem stuffed inside an activity that’s annoying not for its solvable difficulty but because it’s unsolvable shorthand, compounding the frustration. A character with writer’s block is as exciting as a character with the hiccups.
Ironically, the best episode of This Close’s six-episode season is also its most exasperating. A series of time-skipped flashbacks set at the couples’ shared vacation home does more for the development of the relationships than the first half of the season, which dumps us right at their deteriorating precipice. The problem is, waiting to actually flesh out a friendship or a relationship for half a season doesn’t make them more complex. Rather, it makes them thinner, since it’s the same amount of emotional weight stretched over more and more time.
This results is a world of no payoffs, no tension, no drama but no real amusement either. Just semi-pleasant meanderings (or semi-unpleasant meanderings—whatever side of neutral the meanderings are, they’re never far) that have all the disposability of soap opera but none of the outrageousness or charm to sustain them—aside from an ending shot so hilariously over-the-top that an evil twin might as well have burst into the room twirling his mustache. In an early episode, Kate serves on a “Disability in Media” panel and listens to a panelmate (Breaking Bad’s RJ Mitte) demand that no punches be pulled on account of his disability. Along those lines, what This Close proves in its first season is that the unique stories of deaf characters have a plenty of inventive storytelling to offer —just not here.
All six episodes of This Close are currently streaming on Sundance Now.