These Deaf Writers Couldn't Find A Community In LA — So They Created A TV Show
In the first episode of Sundance TV's This Close, a deaf graphic novelist is asked why he didn't make his book about a deaf character. He replies: "I didn't think it would sell."
There's a self-referential irony to that line. Series creators Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern are deaf writers who also star as deaf characters. In fact, they're the first deaf writers and stars of a television show ever.
The show draws on their experiences, depicting life in Los Angeles and how the entertainment industry treats deaf individuals. "We wanted to tell an authentic story not just about people, but about the city we live in," Feldman said.
When the pair started shopping the show around, "The number one feedback we'd always get was 'Why [are] the characters deaf to begin with? What's the point of having a deaf character?' They didn't see any value in having a deaf character," Feldman said.
The original concept for the show featured a hearing person as one of the main characters, "because we thought that would actually be easier to sell," Feldman said.
"Whenever you see deaf leading characters on screen, they always have a hearing person with them. So we just wrote what we'd always seen — and that's the reason representation is so vital. It really shapes our understanding of what works," Stern added.
When those conversations went nowhere, they decided to make the show themselves, as a web series.
They funded it via Kickstarter and produced the pilot for $250.
The Chances, as it was called, debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in 2017. We caught it at a screening that year at L.A.'s Outfest, where the response seemed unanimous: no one had ever seen anything like it before.
In the two years since, the series was developed by SundanceTV into This Close, a half-hour dramedy about two deaf best friends navigating their personal and professional challenges in Los Angeles.
What makes both iterations of the show so groundbreaking is not that they feature deaf characters, but that the deaf characters are three-dimensional.
"Typically, deaf characters are these amazing people, or they're role models" Feldman said. "With our show, we really wanted to make sure that [our characters] Kate and Michael would not be mistaken as role models. They're just two normal young adults trying to do their best."
"There are all kinds of people in the world," Stern added. "Deaf people can be a———-, too. It was important for us to show Kate and Michael being messy."
We caught up with Feldman and Stern at AMC/SundanceTV headquarters. The two were doing press in the lead up to the show's second season premiere, on Thursday, September 12.
Feldman and Stern's connection was palpable. They were hugging, dancing and, at one point, an L.A. Times photographer had them squeeze into the same chair to illustrate just how close they are.
But when I sat down to chat with the duo, they were quick to note it wasn't always this way.
Before meeting each other, it had been hard for each of them to find their people in Los Angeles.
"The deaf community tends to center around deaf residential schools or any large employer of deaf individuals" Stern said. When it comes to the L.A. area, "The deaf community tends to be more in Riverside County. People here [in L.A.] are looking for more of a community. Because L.A. is such a spread out city, people tend to stay in their own areas. If you live on the Westside, you don't go to Eastside. For deaf people, that can become very difficult for them to find other deaf people to interact with."
Starring in a TV series helped them create what they couldn't find.
"We've set a lot of new precedents with our show," Feldman said. "That includes casting people in front of the camera [and] hiring people to work behind the camera."
They have 25 deaf people, including actors, photographers, editors and hair and makeup artists, working on the show. Stern and Feldman don't want to stop there.
"With each season, we hope to raise that number," Feldman said. "We increased that number between seasons one and two. We hope to do that going forward."
Near the end of Stern and Feldman's photoshoot, they received one final direction: "Do something totally unexpected. Do whatever you want to do."
They looked at each other, shrugged, then burst out laughing and jumped up in the air, carefree, limbs waving in all directions. As with the rest of their careers, following their instincts produced the most compelling result.