Signing off from Sort Of
Sort Of co-creator, co-showrunner and star Bilal Baig reflects on the end of the Canadian comedy and how they sought to improve diversity and representation in front of and behind the camera.
As the television industry strives to become more inclusive, both on-screen and off, one show has done more than most to portray an authentic representation of the queer and trans community.
Launched in 2021, Sort Of, created by Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo, tells the story of Sabi Mehboob (Baig), a fluid millennial who straddles various identities – sexy bartender at an LGBTQ bookstore, the youngest child in a large Pakistani family, and the de facto parent of a downtown hipster family.
Now, after three seasons on Canada’s CBC and US streamer Max, the creators themselves have decided to bring the curtain down on the half-hour series and finish telling Sabi’s story as they come to terms with feelings of grief and an unexpected sense of freedom following the death of their father. Without the constraints of living up to their father’s expectations, Sabi confronts big questions about their identity, leading to some massive life choices.
Emerging from the creative partnership between Baig and Filippo, Sort Of started as a conversation between an ensemble of characters who were all dealing with different issues of identity, fronted by Sabi.
“I just loved this idea that we might be doing something really great for the world if we present a trans person, existing alongside CIS people as well as queer and trans people,” Baig tells DQ.
“I was tired of tropes like always equating sassiness or ‘super fabulousness’ to trans people. I have so many trans friends and none of them live their lives like that, so that initially was where it started. We always knew we wanted something honest, something funny, and something cosmopolitan. There had been shows in the past where trans people were just in their silos. I didn’t think that was helpful.”
That ambition has certainly tallied with fans of the show, who have sent Baig messages about how they have felt “seen” and truthfully portrayed in the series.
“There were stories about parents and children watching the show together, parents who have trans non-binary children, and conversations emerged from that because they can reference Sabi. They don’t have to talk about themselves – and that’s powerful,” they say. “People also talk about feeling like the show totally changed or saved their lives. Those are all really big things.”
South Asian-Canadian Baig describes Sabi’s journey as one of “walls coming down,” as they start in a place where they are “guarded, doubtful and afraid” – one that is sadly rooted in real-world experiences.
“This person is having a really hard time letting people in, even though they are loved by a lot of people,” they say. “I really do think that over the course of this series, walls are coming down, but I don’t think there’s some place Sabi needs to be to then be the perfect version of themselves. In this third season they centre themselves more, they go for what they want. They’re a little bit more badass and, as a performer, it felt different playing that Sabi versus the one we started with.”
Of course, Baig is not just the co-creator of Sort Of. They and Filippo are also executive producers and co-showrunners, while Baig leads the ensemble cast that also includes Gray Powell (Paul), Amanda Cordner (7ven), Ellora Patnaik (Raffo), Supinder Wraich (Aqsa), Kaya Kanashiro (Violet), Aden Bedard (Henry), Raymond Cham Jr (Wolf), Becca Blackwell (Deenzie), Ali Hassan (Shehraz), Kareen Vaude (Kareen), Varun Saranga (Izzy), Ayesha Mansur Gonsalves (Mumtaz) and Grace Lynn Kung (Bessy).
Despite headlining Sort Of, Baig admits to identifying as a writer first, actor second. “I find acting scary,” they admit. “There wasn’t really ever a conversation where we were going to do a casting call to find Sabi. Internally, I definitely had some reservations because it felt like such a huge thing – it was my first time acting on camera, writing for TV and producing and co-showrunning. It was like, ‘Really? I need one more job on that?’”
But Baig reveals the “secret recipe” to making Sort Of – which has won numerous Canadian Screen Awards and a Peabody Award – was working with “lovely, amazing, sensitive, compassionate writers” that have come from across the gender and race spectrum.
“We really love our writers and want them to be as free in the room as possible and really bring themselves,” they say. “That’s why we chose them. Their lived experiences really are quite valuable. I guess the show is deeply political, and the writers are, too. They have real opinions, and not just about trans stuff, but feminism, racism… We have those conversations in the room.
“I’m on the quieter side of everything and Fab is quite the opposite, so when I can share something that feels true and right, I will. It’s how I operate on the set too. I like to make a lot of space for other people to do their thing.”
A lot of the prep work for season one was “finding” the show, as Sort Of aims to walk the line between comedy and drama. Some ideas were pitched that “didn’t necessarily feel completely right,” even from the creators, Baig states, though all the scripts were completed before filming began.
“That was a priority. It wouldn’t make sense for me to be acting 15 hours a day and then trying to write the last episode,” Baig says. “I just love that we knew clearly that we don’t reach for jokes. We want truth, and it was such a nice principle to be guided by. Otherwise I think the show would feel really different.”
Baig believed the show – which is produced by Sphere Media and distributed by Abacus Media Rights – would be cancelled after the first season, so when a second run was confirmed, it gave them the chance to expand the show and allow Sabi to make some bold choices that would affect their world and the people around them.
“Where we landed feels really right and emotional and surprising, and what happens in this coming season feels like a departure in tone too,” they say. “That felt really badass, but we’ve got a great thing going and we keep surprising ourselves. I love that the show can contain all of that.”
Showrunning with Filippo, Baig would be across every aspect of the show, particularly when it veered into its South Asian world. With Filippo also directing on the show, Baig made a point not to be on every Zoom call, but their priority was to ensure a harmonious, collaborative atmosphere on set.
“How cool would it be if everyone who worked on the show loved their jobs and wanted to come to work? I felt really sensitive about that,” they say. “I think about myself in jobs I had before all the TV stuff, and it would have been so nice to know my working experience matters. I don’t know how I did it sometimes, but it was really important. Season one I was still learning, I didn’t know what so many of the jobs on a set even were. But by the end of the third season, I remember wrapping and it just felt different.”
Behind the scenes, an ambition of Baig’s was to bring more trans and non-binary people into the crew, and they worked with the Trans Power Mentorship to offer opportunities to people to come to set.
“One of the things I love that we did in season three was we made time for all of the mentees and myself to just have a check in. That really meant a lot to me, and I think it meant a lot to them because we just had a candid conversation about being trans in this business and what it takes to move through it a little bit,” they explain. “That came out of feedback from the second season where we didn’t have a moment like that. I’m so glad we could give them that.”
Notably, though Baig and Filippo decided to bring the show to an end on their own terms, they acknowledged that shows featuring queer and trans characters tend to be cancelled prematurely.
“The world continues to make it really difficult to be trans and from the feedback that was coming in from season one, we understood that the show was a kind of beacon, a light for so many people,” they say. “I felt sensitive to the fact that we were ending it while hatred and violence towards us is only increasing. I’ve loved the gentle journey of the show, and the last thing I would have wanted is we end and it’s like steeped in controversy.”
Baig says that having other trans people on set also brought them relief, knowing there would be some people who would not be questioning their gender or misgendering them.
“I know this sounds shitty, but it’s guilty until proven innocent. People need to show me, all of us, that they have that deep sense of empathy, that they get it or they’re open to learning, and that takes time,” they say.
“That’s the challenge. It’s complicated and I don’t know if it’s getting better – and part of me believes the only way I might be able to work on film and TV sets is if I’m always a producer on it. I don’t want that responsibility always, but I only had the experience I did because I was behind the scenes too. It really freaks me out to jump into something where I’m just an actor or just a writer in a room. I want to believe that things are changing and shifting but I’m not certain.”
Through their next projects, Baig now wants to shift the perception of them as “sweet and angelic,” and hopes to work more in features.
“It’s going to be theatre for a little bit, but TV was a lot and I’m kind of curious about working on a feature now,” they say. “It would have to be something that does live tonally as a thriller, essentially exploring how every day is a nightmare to be trans in this world and looking at what that means, showing it and digging into it.”
But with the end of Sort Of – the third season debuts on CBC Gem this Friday – Baig is proud of a show that has been made “with a lot of love.”
“We’ll always exist,” they adds. “This thing can be returned to whenever people want or it’s needed, and that also really excited me about the TV space because with theatre, it disappears after the run is done. We will exist forever.”