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A Show That Demands Close Listening

Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, the stars and creators of the SundanceTV show
Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, the stars and creators of the SundanceTV show "This Close".
Michael Moriatis/SundanceNow

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The TV series "This Close" tells the story of two deaf best friends. It returned for it's second season last week. We spoke with the creators of the show, Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern. 

[An editorial version of this story can be found at]

JOHN HORN, HOST: “This Close” is a dramedy on the Sundance Channel. It’s about two best friends navigating love and life in Los Angeles. That may sound pretty familiar -- maybe even, generic-- but this show is actually the first of its kind: a TV series starring, created and written by deaf people. Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern are the creators and stars of This Close. Frame contributor Ari Saperstein has their story.

ARI SAPERSTEIN, BYLINE: If there’s one thing Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman want viewers to take away from watching their show, it’s this: 

SHOSHANNAH STERN: There are all kinds of deaf people in the world. Deaf people can be a**holes, too.

JOSH FELDMAN: Typically deaf characters are these “amazing” people, or they’re role models -- and, you know, with our show, we really want to make sure that Kate and Michael would not be mistaken as role models. Like, they're just two normal young adults just trying to do their best. 


ARI SAPERSTEIN: I first meet Stern and Feldman when they’re doing a photoshoot for the LA Times ahead of the season 2 premiere of “This Close.”  They’ve come so far ⁠— in just a few short years they went from a low budget web series to a critically acclaimed show on the Sundance Channel. 


ARI SAPERSTEIN: Working with a photographer who doesn’t know sign language proves no problem at all ⁠— in part because Feldman and Stern have interpreters who translate for them. In fact, those are the voices you’re hearing throughout this interview. The interpreters are hired by the studio - but Stern says employers haven’t been willing to do the same:

SHOSHANNAH STERN: People feel like ‘Why do we have to shoulder that burden? Why don't you just bring someone with you who can interpret for you?’ That’s what I often get. You know, I would love to, but that means that then I have to ask my friends for a favor or then I have to pay out of my own pocket as well... I know it's not my responsibility as a deaf person to have to provide accessibility for them…. at the same time, I also know that they can't see the value in providing accessibility for me yet. So I’m hoping by us hiring deaf people that people can see the value in it. 

JOSH FELDMAN: That includes, you know, casting people for in front of the camera, hiring people to work behind the camera as well... how many deaf people did we have working altogether, would you say altogether?


JOSH FELDMAN: About 25 people. That included actors, photographers, hair and makeup people, editors-

SHOSHANNAH STERN: -art department...

JOSH FELDMAN: We’ve set a lot of new precedents with our show. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN: One of those precedents is Feldman and Stern’s commitment to depicting authentic experiences of deaf people on-screen - and not just visually, but also… through sound.

JOSH FELDMAN: I think most hearing people assume for deaf people that sound is binary and that it's an all or nothing kind of relationship. So with our show, the different kinds of deaf people that we have on-screen and their different relationships with sound is definitely fun to portray. And it’s fun to think about. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN: The sound design in “This Close” shows the spectrum of deafness. One standout scene features a group of both hearing and deaf characters having a conversation:

SHOSHANNAH STERN: We had Millie, who has a cochlear implant in real life and her character also was written to have a cochlear implant. We enter into this character’s sound perspective:

“THIS CLOSE" CLIP: (CLASSICAL MUSIC PLAYS) “Blythe, this Russian tea is just too good.” “It’s a holiday staple and there is--” (audio switches to the perspective of a character with a cochlear implant. The sound is scratchy and gargled...) 

SHOSHANNAH STERN: And then we had Kate, and she has to be dependent on her hearing aids:

"THIS CLOSE" CLIP: (The conversation continues. The sound is scratchy and digital)

SHOSHANNAH STERN: And then Kate’s granny, who is losing her hearing:

"THIS CLOSE" CLIP: (The sound is distant, underwater-like) (After a moment, it switches back to the hearing character's perspective, then back to the hearing aid sound...)


SHOSHANNAH STERN: You know sitting with the sound guy, I had to explain what that would really sound like, to really show how different it is for each of these three women. Going into the sound booth for that? And providing notes on sound? As deaf person, I never thought I would be giving notes on what the sound is. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN: As a show that frequently uses two languages - English and American Sign Language  - the creators want to ensure that it’s accessible to all audiences at all times. 

JOSH FELDMAN: Every time our characters sign, there will be subtitles on the screen, and when the characters speak, you’ll have closed captioning. So nobody is going to miss out on anything. And that was really important to us as deaf people because often times we miss out on things, whether it be just, like, the captioning goes haywire or the show is not closed captioned to begin with. You know, we've all experienced that as deaf people, so, like, we wanted to be careful to make sure our show is 100% accessible.

ARI SAPERSTEIN: Even coming up with the title “This Close” was a process of bridging the divide between the hearing world of the network and the deaf world of the show. 

SHOSHANNAH STERN: We'd gone back and forth with the network -- back and forth, back and forth. And all of it was, like, English words they were trying to use to capture the deaf experience. Like "The Sound of Silence". "Deaf Like Me." But I said, “I think we’re working backwards.” I said “I really think that instead of trying to find an English word that captures the deaf experience, we should be thinking of a sign, because that's the language of the community that we’re trying to portray. So we should think of a sign and then find a translation into English from the sign.

ARI SAPERSTEIN: Shoshannah held up her hand to show me the sign for “This Close”.

SHOSHANNAH: So you would have your index finger and your middle finger crossing. So there’s many different translations you could have for this one sign. So we’re showing something that’s intertwined, by having our fingers literally intertwined. And so that’s also a sign used for “best friends”. Another one was “like this”, ‘cause people would say that we’re “like this” and use that sign to represent that. Or we’re “this close”. So we came up with “this close” from that.  

JOSH FELDMAN:  It takes on more meaning over time, right? So it's not just “this close” as friends, but it's “this close to failure,” it's “this close to happiness”, it’s “this close to success” -- you know, like, the show is about growing up and so you often feel “this close” to something but you’re not quite there yet. And so that’s why I love the title. It takes on several other meanings as well. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN: Now, this is Feldman and Stern’s first time on the radio. So I decided to end the interview by asking them about the elephant in the room:

ARI SAPERSTEIN: (speaking directly to Feldman and Stern) Does it feel weird to participate in something that isn’t very accessible to deaf people?

JOSH FELDMAN: Well, in a way, it's a little weird right? Because we would never really know what the final product actually sounds like… so yes, it is a little strange, but as long as we get more people to listen to our story, then so be it.

SHOSHANNAH STERN: I have always said that I am completely fine being deaf, but one thing that I am a little bit sad about is that I can't listen to NPR. Seriously. Because people always say, they’re always talking about these amazing stories that they hear on NPR, something they've listened to… so I think it's really cool that we have the chance to be on this. 

ARI SAPERSTEIN: Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman are the stars and creators of the Sundance TV show “This Close.” Special thanks to interpreters Robbie Sutton & Samantha Garley. For The Frame, I’m Ari Saperstein.


JOHN HORN: New episodes of “This Close” air Thursday night on the Sundance Channel. 


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