Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman are ready for round two of their groundbreaking SundanceTV series, This Close.
The first television show created, written by and starring actors who are deaf, the half-hour dramedy has garnered critical acclaim since its February debut last year, praised for its unapologetic look at the complicated lives of best friends Kate and Michael as they navigate work and love -- sometimes messily. "We all have this human experience that really bonds all of us to each other, no matter who we are individually," Stern tells ET, which exclusively debuts a sneak peek from the new season (watch above). "To see that reflected in our audience was really special."
When season two kicks off on Thursday, which expands to eight episodes, Kate and Michael are faced with new challenges as they attempt to restart their friendship after having a major falling out at the end of season one, culminating in a shocking car accident that left Michael's well-being unknown. The premiere picks up seconds after that crash, with Michael urgently rushed to the hospital. How and if Kate and Michael are able to reconcile their friendship back to a good place remains a looming question, as Kate’s past comes back to haunt her and Michael struggles to walk a straight and narrow path.
Last October, ET sat down with Stern and Feldman during their lunch break on the hospital set of This Close in Hawaiian Gardens, California, where they opened up, through an interpreter, about their groundbreaking series, how their real-life friendship has evolved onscreen and what viewers can expect in the new season, especially after that shocking cliffhanger.
ET: It's been over a year since season one of This Close premiered and since then, the reception has been extremely positive. How surprising was it to see that as the episodes dropped?
Shoshannah Stern: We thought it would resonate with specific communities, but then to see the wide spectrum of people who were able to feel like they resonated with the show, it was really touching to us and we really do want to show that everyone is the same in many ways. We all have this human experience that really bonds all of us to each other, no matter who we are individually. To see that reflected in our audience was really special.
Josh Feldman: One of the goals that we have in the writers' room is to make the story specific to what our own experiences as deaf people are, but then also find a way to make it so that anyone else can find a connection to it as well. In some ways, that's always one of our goals.
Stern: Yes, always. With everything we do, we try to make sure that we can tie everything into a bigger experience of dependency, of loss, of anything people can share so it's familiar to everyone who watches.
You mentioned hearing from people who are not from the deaf community or are not familiar with what people who are deaf go through. What did you find that they were engaging with in the stories?
Stern: Being tokenized. I think everyone can relate to being tokenized in some way, depending on what their identities are. Friendship. People often share really cute messages on Twitter, like, "I wish I had a friend like Kate." We did pitch the story as a love story originally, but not a romantic love story. I think love stories... people tend to think that it means romantic. You can be in a relationship romantically with someone who really doesn't know you that well. I think people were able to see that friendship between Kate and Michael and thought, "Well, this is like my best friend" or "I really wish I had this type of friendship." I get messages like this and it's really sweet to see that.
Feldman: On TV, you'll see two friends connect, but often they're only showing the good sides of the friendship. We wanted to show that sometimes bad things happen in a friendship as well. They go through hard times, but we don't see that on TV as much. We wanted to show how friends go through those struggles together, the good and the bad. How they bounce back from it.
Stern: Breaking up with a friend is not that easy. You can't really ghost them, you have to really talk it out and work it out. They know how you really feel. They know all sides to you. You can't really put a cover or a front with them. We wanted to show that multi-dimensional friendship. That really is the heart of our show.
Especially in the first season, Kate and Michael really go through their paces and experience the ups and downs of their friendship, which all culminates in the finale. Is their relationship representative of your real-life partnership off-screen?
Stern: Yeah, Josh does tend to get hit by cars. (Laughs.)
Feldman: (Joking.) Happens to me all the time. We get in fights and then I go and get hit by a car.
Stern: We often say that Kate and Michael's friendship is inspired by our real-life friendship, but it really does take on a life of its own. Our friendship in real life is different from the relationship that we have built for Kate and Michael. One big difference is that we became friends after I was already married, so I do wonder what would've happened if we had met when we were both single. I think we might have been more similar to Kate and Michael.
Feldman: For sure. When we met, it was at a point where we already had our own lives established here in L.A. We had our own group of friends. Shoshannah was already married, so it was a great time for us to meet, develop a new friendship and bond from there. I can imagine if it was earlier on, there would have been far more codependency. Probably wouldn't have ended up making a show together actually, if that happened.
Stern: We would have been too busy fighting to do that.
How has your friendship evolved since working on the show and starring in it together?
Stern: Really, it's a partnership. We're partners. We show up and go to work together. We write together. It's more than just a friendship at this point. It really has gone into something even more than that. No one knows what it's like to walk in our footsteps other than Josh. Or me, in his case. It's like we're living a life that no one else really lives. We're almost parents. The show is our baby, so we're raising a child together. Sometimes parents disagree, but they still have the child and they have to work that out. The child brings them happiness and they remember this is why we did this in the first place. It's very similar to that.
Feldman: There are more areas in our lives that have overlapped. I have a really good relationship with Shoshannah's daughter. So there are a lot of layers that come into play and that overlap with each other. It's not just as simple as being a friendship anymore. It's really interesting to see how that's evolved in our lives.
Heading into season two, what did you learn from the first season that helped prepare you for these new episodes?
Stern: One thing that was really helpful with the writing was realizing we've done this before. I remember the first time we were writing, we were like, "What are we doing? Are we crazy?" And now we've done this before. We have one season under our belt. We got through this before, we can get through it again. Having that knowledge, that experience.
Feldman: Going into season one, we were highly focused on the story, making it specific but simple enough that people could still relate to it. Now, I don't think we're as afraid or concerned about what people would think about finding a bigger story or different types of relationships to add into it. So this season feels bigger in scale. I mean, we're literally in a hospital right now! You'll see as you watch the second season that each episode is vastly different from each other. We weren't as afraid as we were in the first season. We didn't hold back.
Stern: Now that we're in the world that we've established, we know we get to unleash something new with something more, and as Josh said, it's the exciting part. We can experiment. We can go to darker places. We can go to louder places. We do feel like people have already stepped into the world and now they can delve deeper into it.
Feldman: This season, we're learning more about Kate and Michael's pasts and who they are and we'll understand them better as people. That's what I'm really excited for the audience to see. This is where they come from, that's why they are the way they are.
Stern: More deaf people come into this season as well. We wanted to carefully introduce it because we've never done that before. Seeing two deaf characters communicating with each other onscreen. I don't know if you know this, but when we first came up with the idea, Michael wasn't even supposed to be deaf, he was supposed to be hearing.
Why did you decide to nix that and have Michael also be deaf?
Stern: We were so used to seeing that onscreen that we'd internalized that. You typically see one deaf person with a hearing person. That's how it's always portrayed onscreen. It became the norm. As Michael says in the first episode, it's going to be hard to sell. He talks about that with his novel that has two deaf leads. We didn't move forward with the production company we were close to actually making [the show] that way with. They kept saying, "We don't understand why the characters are deaf? Why are both of them deaf? We just don't understand." There needed to be a reason. We would try to explain it and realized that we really couldn't, we had to show it, so we had to do it ourselves. Once we decided to do it ourselves, we decided why not make both characters deaf? No one else will if we don't. That's ironically when we ended up selling the show.
We have to talk about the cliffhanger at the end of season one, where Michael gets hit by the car in the middle of the street. When I watched it, I was shocked. Were you guys nervous about ending the season with that moment?
Feldman: It was a lot of back and forth with that end to the season. The network wanted something big that would leave the audience wondering what's next. At one point there was a gun involved.
Stern: We had Michael getting shot by cops.
Feldman: There were many different scenarios that could have played out. We decided we wanted to find something that was specific because that's what our show is about.
Stern: We really wanted something that was a visual without words. You didn't need to have dialogue or signs whatsoever. Just unspoken. It's a visual picture that you could see. Just one image that would force people to look and really see it. They weren't able to look away.
Feldman: At the end somehow, it paid off in terms of consequences. Both Kate and Michael make decisions throughout the whole season that leads them to this finale, and honestly, Michael needs to get some type of punishment. He's drinking because he's lied to Kate, so there has to be consequences for his actions.
Stern: Kate, throughout the season, is missing things that are happening right in front of her. She doesn't see that her boss is stoned on brownies, so she just eats them. She doesn't see that Danny has been lying to her about his job. She has all these things happening in front of her face. I feel like that was a really great metaphor for both characters.
Feldman: I really had no idea if it would work. Even as we were filming it, we were like, "Well, we'll just see what happens. Here goes nothing. Hope it works out."
Stern: Everyone kept texting. My mom was like, "Michael's not dead, right?" I said, "Oh, he's dead. Yep, he's done. Done. The minute he hit the ground, massive brain hemorrhage. Dead."
Feldman: I had to text her mom a selfie so she would feel better seeing me, realizing that I'm fine. I'm still alive. (Laughs.)
What can you say in terms of where season two picks up again? We're in a hospital, so I imagine pretty soon after the finale...
Stern: Season two picks up right off the bat where we left off. Moments after the finale of season one, literal moments. Seconds.
Feldman: We definitely do play with time quite a bit throughout the second season, so the narrative is not always going to be linear. We love the idea of picking up where we left off. We also don't want to feel like we're stuck or stagnant in where we are. So we found ways to still play with time and show that the characters are going to different places.
Where are your characters' romantic lives as we set the table for the new season?
Feldman: For Michael, after the finale, it's clear he's not done with Ryan. This season, they try to explore the idea of getting back together. They both know that their relationship has failed once, so they try their best to enter into this new relationship and try something new with it.
Stern: For Kate, she's someone who spent most of her life being defined by men in one way or another. We do learn a lot more about why that is and how that's happened. We learn a lot more about Kate's past -- the men that have been in her life in the past, men in her present, potentially men in the future. I'll leave it at that.
What's the status of Danny and Kate?
Stern: That's a big part of the second season. They're definitely on a journey and it's an exciting one. I was actually texting Zach about that just now that it is exciting to see what that journey is for them. We'll see very different sides to both of them than what we saw in the first season.
How can Hollywood move the conversation forward and put it into action in a more direct way of being more inclusive of various communities?
Stern: I really want to see the spectrum within specific communities. Representation, for example, is a buzz word. Diversity, another buzz word that we see. But there's a whole spectrum within that. Representation is important in front of the screen, but also important behind the screen. We need to see different types of people working behind the camera that are telling those stories that we see onscreen.
This is the first show that has been written and created by deaf people and we're really highly honored that it's us. But it's 2019, you know? There are people who have other experiences; they can tell their own stories, too. Any community should be able to tell their own stories. I don't think people should feel like they can't tell other people's stories, but just work in collaboration with that person or with that community, and have it become a partnership. Like with diversity, you realize that that includes people who are deaf. Diversity includes people with disabilities and visible disabilities. That's all part of the spectrum of diversity.
Feldman: Any great character has many different qualities about them, but often with minority characters or underrepresented communities, how they are described is first by, for example: this deaf person, the black person, the Asian person. That comes first before the other characteristics and qualities that they have. Having that transition of character description, whether it be their physical description of their disability, that's just one of the many characteristics about them. That can change; not having that always be the first thing that we know about them. On our show, Kate and Michael are obviously three-dimensional people. They're deaf, that's just part of them. That should be true for any character, any race, any disability. That's just part of who they are. So many characters that are underrepresented onscreen are brought on because of that one characteristic and that's what's highlighted. We'd like to have that change and show that they're multifaceted individuals.
This Close premieres back-to-back episodes of season two Thursday, Sept. 12 at midnight ET/PT on SundanceTV, followed by two more episodes on Friday, Sept. 13. The final four episodes air Thursday, Sept. 19 and 20.
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