'This Close' and 'The Mortified Guide': TV Review | Sundance 2018

Sundance Indie Episodic Program 2 has two shows that'll play beyond Park City.

Sundance Now's deaf buddy dramedy is honest and funny, while 'The Mortified Guide' expands beyond its stage and podcast roots in a heartfelt TV incarnation.

[This year, for the first time, Sundance has dedicated a special section to the episodic format, recognizing the variety of independent episodic shortform programming for online as well as traditional television. The Indie Episodic slate includes Steve James' docuseries America To Me and six "programs," featuring multiple shows.]

Trying to figure out if there's a logic to the Indie Episodic programs and their themes can be puzzling, so I guess the thing unifying the two entries in Program 2 — This Close and The Mortified Guide — might just be that they're both really good.

Already scheduled for a February 14 launch on the Sundance Now, This Close is a half-hour episodic incarnation of creators Josh Feldman and Shoshannah Stern's shortform series that premiered at Sundance last year. This Close is a little funny, a little sweet, unexpectedly insightful and a worthy reminder that Stern was great on Weeds and very good on Jericho and probably would have been a star long ago if Hollywood were more creative when it comes to utilizing deaf actors.

With that in mind, Stern and Feldman decided to stop waiting for other writers to give them interesting characters to play and crafted their own leading roles as a pair of longtime friends — he's a gay graphic novelist, she's an aspiring publicist engaged to a non-deaf guy played by Zach Gilford — dealing with a world in which the only way most people know how to handle their differences is by yelling really loud.

The first two episodes screened at Sundance are full of moments that feel ripped from its stars/creators' lives and handled with the opportunity for catharsis, like when Stern's Kate finds herself on a condescending Actors with Disabilities panel and, after an agonizing experience, lets the well-intentioned crowd know what she thinks of them. Of course, then we're supposed to wonder if our own good intentions are any less hollow given how This Close also made me constantly think, "Oh, I never would have thought about why that would be so difficult" as Kate and Feldman's Michael deal with things like airplane security or inept translators. It isn't always clear when director Andrew Ahn is playing these beats of misunderstanding broadly for comedy and when he's trying to capture the way certain circumstances might feel to you if you had to go through them day after day.

Feldman isn't as polished an actor as Stern and his character is, initially, in a more dramatic, fragile situation. He's having to play big beats that only sometimes land, while the Kate-Michael friendship and then the quieter relationship material with Stern and Gilford is more effective.

Ultimately, the series works because deafness isn't a twist, but the specificity in what would still be a well-executed buddy dramedy. After all, how many shows and movies about friends play off the idea of two people who are so close that they speak a language nobody else understands, much to the frustration of their other loved ones? This is just a variation on that that you haven't seen play out on TV before.

You haven't seen Mortified Guide on TV before, but over 15 years it's been a podcast, a stage show, a 2013 movie and, directed by Mike Mayer, David Nadelberg's concept makes the easy transition to yet another format, where it will premiere on Netflix on February 14.

If you don't know the Mortified thing, it finds real people sharing their real adolescent memories and writings and art with an eager audience ready to laugh and cheer at their most embarrassing of moments. Sometimes the readings are straightforward and let the absurdity of the prose sing. Other storytellers embellish with snide commentary or ironic tone. It's a great and versatile concept. For TV, each 45-minute episode is built around a single topic and, in addition to the onstage confessionals, episodes include animation, outside interviews, documentary features taking some of the storytellers back to their childhood homes and more.

The Indie Episodic program screened the episode "The Mortified Guide to Family," which is, frankly, the least mortifying of the available episodes, which is saying a lot since it contains multiple "finger-banging" jokes. Instead of being the most cringeworthy episode possible, "Family" shows the mixture the series can provide, with anecdotes ranging from a very silly funeral for a pet hermit crab to an adopted young woman's bittersweet encounter with her biological mother. Maybe it's that tonal variation that is what connected Mortified Guide and This Close for the Sundance programmers?

The highlight, for me, was the dueling reading by twins Vera & Barb, who fell in love with the same guy in high school, but recorded the love triangle very differently in their respective diaries. This chapter shows how well the Mortified TV format works, because not only are the readings delivered with spectacular timing, but the ability to take the conversation/memory away from the stage leads to something very real and touching between sisters.

Finally, there's nothing more Sundance than the Mortified Guide mantra of, "We're freaks. We are fragile. And we all survived."



This Close

Network: Sundance Now

Director: Andrew Ahn

Creators: Josh Feldman, Shoshannah Stern

Stars: Josh Fedman, Shoshannah Stern, Zach Gilford


The Mortified Guide

Creator: David Nadelberg

Director: Michael Mayer

Production Company: Hungry Monster Productions, Mortified Media and Brainstorm Media