I Want My Gay TV

With “Sort Of”, Bilal Baig Wants To Break the Binaries of Nonbinary Stories

· Updated on October 4, 2023

On CBC and HBO Max’s original series, “Sort Of,” cynical, reserved millennial Sabi Mehboob navigates an aggressively cis-heteronormative world. Over the course of the show’s two seasons, we see Sabi, played by the show’s co-creator Bilal Baig, come into their own as a Pakistani, nonbinary person joined by their queer and gender non-conforming chosen family, and asserting their identity with their traditional South Asian family. 

When we are first introduced to Sabi, they’ve left their electrician job to work as a nanny for husband and wife Paul (Gray Powell) and Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), caring for their two children, Violet (Kaya Kanashiro) and Henry (Aden Bedard). They balance the nanny job with a job as a bartender in a queer setting. Over the course of the season, Sabi struggles to find their purpose after Bessy gets into a biking accident and is in a coma for months. Their mother, Raffo (Ellora Patnaik), is also reluctant to accept the fact that Sabi is a nanny and constantly misgenders them, not understanding their nonbinary identity.

In Season 2, we see the dynamics between all three families become more complex, as Bessy returns home from the hospital, the bar where Sabi works is forced to close due to a lack of revenue coming in, and Sabi’s father, Imran (Dhirendra Miyanger) returns home from a business trip in Dubai.

INTO caught up with Baig in a late November afternoon, shortly after the second season has just aired in Canada, and days before it is set to premiere in the US. Leading up to the premiere, Baig aws nervous about how the second season will be received in the US, not knowing that weeks later, the show will be renewed for a third season

In one of the season’s early episodes, Imran recruits Sabi to help with a renovation project in their family home, as he would like for them to put their background as an electrician to use.

Jasper Savage/HBO Max

“In South Asian culture if you go to school for something, or if you paid money to learn a trade or a skill, you should be working in that field when you’re done with school,” Baig says. “Part of Imran’s desire for Sabi to be doing this work is to kind of exercise the skills that they learned when they went to school for it. I definitely grew up with parents who wanted you to kind of do the thing that you poured lots of time and money into.”

It’s safe to say the actor is applying this principle today, as Baig themselves studied theater at Humber College. Their flair for the dramatics began as a child growing up in Mississauga, Ontario, as they pushed their imagination by way of playing games with their siblings.

“We didn’t grow up with a lot of toys or the newest kind of gadgets, so we relied on each other to have fun,” Baig says. “That’s something that really stayed with me.”

“I found that if I could make people laugh through theater, maybe they wouldn’t maybe it wouldn’t feel like them laughing at me.”

Baig also recalls attending a diverse school, which they said: “reflected what Canada really looked like.” Although they are grateful for this experience, they do recall being bullied throughout school.

Seeking a way to flip the narrative, Baig found solace in their school’s theater program, where they expressed themselves through a multitude of characters in productions and sketches.

“I found that if I could make people laugh through theater, maybe they wouldn’t maybe it wouldn’t feel like them laughing at me,” says Baig. “My way into theater was actually kind of grounded in sad shit, but then in high school, I discovered writing and was so excited about human voices, dialogue, and conflict, and people who love each other hurting each other.”

To say their hard work has manifested fruitfully would be quite the understatement: In 2018, Baig brought the play they wrote, Acha Bacha—which tells the story of a Pakistani-Canadian non-binary person reconciling their gender identity with their Muslim upbringing—to the stage. Just three years later, “Sort Of” premiered on CBC and HBO Max. 

Jasper Savage/HBO Max

Baig co-created “Sort Of” with Fab Filippo, who said the idea for the show came to them after hearing Filippo discuss “navigating a transition” within his life.

“That word kind of unlocked something in me,” Baig says.” I rarely ever hear people talking about transition and yet, it’s a thing that every human is constantly moving through. And the second he spoke about that, it really unlocked something for the both of us, like, that’s what we’re gonna explore in the show, like, whatever the show becomes.”

While Baig’s and Sabi’s lives are quite different, Baig admits that both they and Sabi have a difficult time trusting others. But now, two seasons into the series, Baig admits they feel a lot more sure of themselves than they think Sabi does.

Over the course of the season, we see Sabi grapple with dating, as well as building a new queer space with their chosen family. All the while, they cope through life’s trials and tribulations through dry, sardonic humor with their best friend, 7ven (Amanda Cordner.)

In the penultimate episode of the season, as Sabi, 7ven, and the new club’s investors are setting up the space, Sabi receives a call from their sister, Aqsa (Supinder Wraich.) informing them that their father has died. 

Sabi and 7ven then sit together in the latter’s car, creating a safe space for them to vent and emotionally prepare themselves to see their family. Baig says this was the toughest scene for them to shoot throughout the season.

Over the course of the season, we see Sabi grapple with dating, as well as building a new queer space with their chosen family.

“They’re both quite dry in that scene,” Baig says. “And there’s a lot of love. We shot that scene pretty late at night, and when I look back at it, yeah, it was challenging, because it’s also a little funny, too. I don’t know that everyone’s gonna be slapping their knee at that scene in particular, but it’s not all darkness and sadness. They’re best buds, so they know that they’ve got each other, so to have that quality of their friendship, and also be processing something completely devastating is beautiful.”

Though the show hasn’t “blown up overnight,” as Baig puts it, and seems to be mostly popular within niche communities, they admit they’re happy that “Sort Of” has been more of slow burn and that the response, while mostly positive, hasn’t been overwhelming yet.

Still, Baig enjoys seeing their nonbinary peers, like “The Sandman’s” Mason Alexander Park and “And Just Like That’s” Sara Ramirez bringing diverse stories to the screen.

Baig admits they’re not sure where the show’s third season will take them, but wants to explore what Sabi’s life will be like without their dad, in terms of unpacking the pain and trauma, as well as exploring the liberation.

Overall, their vision is the display a wide range of human emotions and shatter the binaries of nonbinary stories.

“I think there could always be room for improvement [in trans and nonbinary stories],” says Baig. “and we’re totally moving in that direction, and the more, the merrier. We need each of those [trans and nonbinary] characters that exist right now to really paint the broad kind of human experience of what it means to be trans and nonbinary. We don’t need more harmful, stereotypical kind of images of being attacked and assaulted. We need all sorts of representation.”♦

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