Stop me if you’ve heard this one before: Two actors pull together a pet project and hit Kickstarter to crowdfund it after being spurned by studio executives. Many media-makers these days are taking pilot episodes to the people, rather than waiting for networks to pick them up. But this time, the now-commonplace tale has a bit of a welcome twist. “Fridays,” a romantic comedy webseries from Shoshannah Stern and Josh Feldman, isn’t exactly your average media project.
In the show, Stern and Feldman play Kate and Michael, two best friends living in Los Angeles. They get together every Friday to shoot the shit with each other, talk about their lives, and dish on relationships. Their friendship is about to undergo a major shift, however, because Kate just got married and is trying to adjust to her husband moving into the space she always regarded as hers. Michael, meanwhile, is a freshly single gay guy searching for The One who can’t seem to find a boyfriend who isn’t a complete jerk.
The show’s first episode, “The Comedown,” is sharp, funny, and bittersweet, with a raw edge thanks to the shoestring production budget. But it also centers on characters we don’t often see in media: Kate and Michael, like Stern and Feldman, are both Deaf.
The episode is conducted almost entirely in sign language, except for an interaction with a pizza guy. Subtitles are helpfully provided for viewers who aren’t fluent in ASL. Yet, “Fridays” isn’t about being Deaf or the Deaf experience — it really is just a show about two friends dealing with changes in their lives as they suddenly encounter the fact that they’re starting to diverge from each other. The point isn’t that they’re Deaf or that they use sign to communicate, it’s just about two people dealing with their lives. That’s the way “Fridays” was designed, and the way the actors and writers plan to keep it.
Feldman and Stern have great chemistry with each other, snapping smoothly back and forth across the emotional spectrum and connecting on a level that makes their characters feel like old friends. The dynamic between them is perfect, even as the viewer starts to see the fissures in their friendship, the signs that things are about to change despite their best efforts.
At the close of “The Comedown,” we hear a key at the door, Kate’s unknown and unseen husband entering, calling her name, and she shifts from a mess slumped on the floor to an animated woman jumping up to greet him. Despite having spent much of her Friday gab session talking about her frustrations with her husband, it’s all been forgotten.
The camera cuts to Michael, leaning against the wall with a thoughtful, sad expression on his face as he realizes that despite what Kate claims, the dynamics of their friendship have changed radically. The marriage has become—and will remain—a complicating factor in their longstanding friendship.
Both Stern and Feldman set out to create the kind of media they wish they could see but so rarely do, in which they’re not typecast as “The Deaf Characters” but are instead treated as people with complex lives and identities. This upending of Hollywood tradition is particularly true of Michael’s character. Feldman didn’t come out until adulthood, frustrated with his treatment by hearing people and worried about ending up at the intersection of two minority identities. His fears were perhaps well-warranted, as he found himself in the typecasting corner more than once. Michael is a rather defiant refutation of the notion that Deaf actors can only play characters exclusively defined by their Deafness. Michael’s role is much more about being a young, single gay man dealing with the swing of dating and relationships.
Kate berates Michael for dating a loser guy… again.
In an era when “diversity” is becoming a buzzword, “Fridays” stands out as an example of what people should be striving for with its inclusion of Deaf characters in Deaf roles. Critically, the creators of the series are also Deaf, a reminder that you can’t have functional diversity without diverse writers and creators—it means little to have Deaf characters written and portrayed by hearing people over and over again. Deaf people need to be able to tell their own stories, and need to be provided with access to an industry that notoriously slams doors in the faces of minorities.
Finally, “Fridays” accomplishes what one might consider the final leg of the diversity triangle: It is about characters as people, not characters as their minorities. Their Deafness is integrated into the story — from the ASL they use when speaking to the light-up doorbell — but the story isn’t about it. This is the hallmark of diversity done well: Strong, funny, amazing storytelling about people as human beings first, while still exploring their minority identities as part of their lives. Removing any one segment from the diversity triangle makes the whole thing fall apart, which is why media like this is so important. “Fridays” illustrates that diversity is more than a buzzword, and that paying lip service to the concept isn’t sufficient.
I hope we get to see more of “Fridays,” and I hope the show pushes networks and creators to rethink the way they use minority characters. We need lots more diversity, but we also need it to be good diversity, because I don’t hold with the idea that any representation is good representation.