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To the Max

Sort Of Is a Complicated and Necessary Addition to Queer Television

The Max Original illustrates how powerful it is to be seen.
  • Amanda Cordner and Bilal Baig in Sort Of (Photo: Max)
    Amanda Cordner and Bilal Baig in Sort Of (Photo: Max)

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    There’s a scene during the first episode of Sort Of that touches upon the core of the series. The show’s protagonist Sabi (Bilal Baig), a non-binary Pakistani millennial, is working their shift at a LGBTQ+ bookstore/bar as Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung) laments over her husband’s recent decision to let Sabi go from their part-time nannying gig. “I’m going to miss you,” Bessy earnestly tells them. “Are you going to miss me?” But Sabi evades answering, not yet ready to confront the weight of their emotions.

    Created by Baig and Fab Filippo, Sort Of is a subtle yet powerful ode to the messiness that surrounds the queer coming-of-age experience. The Canadian dramedy — which is currently filming its third season — throws viewers headfirst into Sabi’s fractured world. In Episode 1, Sabi’s cis-white boyfriend, Lewis (Gregory Ambrose Calderone) breaks up with them because he “doesn’t feel seen,” only for Sabi to later discover that he had been cheating on them with his ex-girlfriend MacKenzie (Alanna Bale).

    Later, Bessy’s husband Paul (Gray Powell) decides to fire Sabi as their nanny, but not before offering to help them find a new family since it might be hard for “someone like them.” The lowest point occurs at the very end, when Sabi’s mom Raffo (Ellora Patnaik) — whose calls Sabi had been dodging — shows up at their doorstep unannounced. Sabi, not yet out to their mother, spins around in fear, in a feeble attempt at hiding their feminine presentation.

    So, when Sabi’s best friend 7ven (Amanda Calderone) extends an opportunity to move to Berlin rent-free, it might just be the escape they need. However, Sabi’s plan to run away is upended when Bessy gets into a bike accident, leaving her comatose. Despite Sabi’s loved ones all pushing them to pursue a fresh start, they feel a lingering sense of duty to help Bessy’s family through this dark period of uncertainty. As Sabi takes on more responsibilities looking after Paul and his kids, it becomes increasingly difficult for them to keep the two spheres of their lives separate when bits of each slowly seep into the other.

    That isn’t to say that Sort Of is solely about Sabi’s journey coming to terms with balancing their cultural heritage and queer self. For Baig, there’s pressure tied to being the first queer, South Asian, and Muslim person to lead a television series. Yet their approach to Sabi is less focused on illustrating a friction between each of the identities, and more on how they actually build off of one another. In doing so, the series takes a more nuanced approach to its overarching themes, as it understands the ways in which conversations surrounding race, class, immigration, and identity are all completely intertwined.

    “There’s something about that that induces or engages empathy when we’re looking at somebody whose problems are similar to lots of people versus something that might feel like it’s very specific,” Baig explained to Xtra. “For me, that’s how I came into the world; like my mother always said, ‘You will always be Muslim.’ Then, as I stepped into my adulthood and started to embrace all these other things, I just built on top of Muslim-ness.”

    Sort Of weaves these topics together to tell a larger story about healing. This is seen most prevalently within Sabi’s relationship with their mother, who struggles with her inner turmoil of wanting to better understand her child, while also reconciling her own prejudices and traditional beliefs. Raffo’s initial stance on Sabi’s identity is connected to how she feels about their job as a nanny, as she berates them for holding such a “lowly” occupation and not living up to their potential. This criticism, while coated in classism, also stems from a fear among immigrant parents, who travel to the West in hopes of affording their children opportunities that they themselves did not have.

    Yet the show doesn’t portray this conflict as black and white, instead portraying Raffo’s journey unlearning her cultural biases in order to connect with Sabi. It’s not always easy for either of them, but Raffo is, at the very least, trying. And in that process of listening to and seeing the real Sabi, Raffo undergoes her own transformation and begins to deconstruct and challenge the dynamics within her life.

    The absence of Sabi’s father Imran (Dhirendra Miyanger) in Season 1 is critical to Raffo’s journey toward, what is in some ways, a kind of self-enlightenment. She’s afforded a temporary freedom from the gendered constraints of a traditional South Asian household. Season 2 expands upon these dynamics, as seen in Imran’s return from Dubai. He presents a larger threat to both Raffo and Sabi, which complicates later conversations about queerness and identity.

    Sabi’s family isn’t the only one undergoing a large transition. Take the character of Paul: He’s a cishet white man who spends the series grappling with the breakdown of his marriage, family, and friendships, while also confronting how his privilege can directly impact Sabi’s life. But Paul isn’t treated as the evil villain in Sabi’s story. His journey is just as vital to the show’s fabric because it helps to serve as a gateway for other men like him to later empathize and forge connections with the characters and, in a broader sense, with marginalized groups at large.

    During an interview with them, Baig explained: “I really wanted to reflect on what it means for people to truly see each other, and how actually life-changing the act of deep seeing can be — for both the person who sees, and the person who allows themself to be seen.” It raises essential questions on what it means for these communities to coexist, and how individuals like Paul can work towards nurturing that space to grow.

    At its core, Sort Of is a show about setting boundaries and establishing safe spaces for folks like Sabi to just exist, rather than adhere to expectations that queer people must compromise their authentic selves in order to be accepted. There isn’t any strict template for what that’s supposed to look like — the show’s title embodies this ambiguity. Sort Of argues that the most profound and universal experiences reside within the messy uncertainties, and perhaps that’s what makes them so beautiful in the first place.

    Sort Of Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Max. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Dianna Shen is a TV Writer at Primetimer based in New York. Her work has been featured in Paste Magazine and Decider, among other outlets.

    TOPICS: Sort Of, Max, Bilal Baig, LGBTQ