Arts·Queeries

New show Sort Of doesn't just break representational barriers — it's also more than sort of great

Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo's big-hearted new comedy shows us that everyone is in transition.

Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo's big-hearted new comedy shows us that everyone is in transition

Bilal Baig in Sort Of. (CBC)

Queeries is a weekly column by CBC Arts producer Peter Knegt that queries LGBTQ art, culture and/or identity through a personal lens.

Audiences at last week's Toronto International Film Festival didn't just watch movies. They were also lucky enough to get a sneak peak at what will surely become one of the most celebrated TV series of this fall: Sort Of, co-creators Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo's sharp, big-hearted comedy about a gender-fluid nanny navigating their complicated existence. 

The series stars Baig (who was previously known best for their work in theatre, and whose deadpan delivery in Sort Of is one of its many great assets) as nanny Sabi Mehboob, who is given a chance to move to Berlin in pursuit of something more than their clearly unsatisfying life. But after the mother of the children they nanny gets in a serious bike accident, Sabi decides to stay put in Toronto (for once, Toronto very much plays itself here and has rarely felt so present in a TV series). 

When the show premieres on CBC Gem on October 5th (and then on CBC TV in November), it will offer two major better-late-than-never firsts: Sabi will be the first non-binary lead character ever on Canadian television, while Baig will be the first queer, South Asian, Muslim actor to star in a Canadian primetime TV series. What's more is the extensive brown, queer, trans and non-binary artists beyond Baig that the show features both in front of and behind the camera, something that clearly lent itself to the series' rich characters and complex authenticity. (Also, I'm aware that it might seem like PR to read these proclamations from someone employed by the same network Sort Of airs on, but I assure you will very much realize this is not the case when you see the show for yourself.)

The genesis of Sort Of came after Baig and Filippo first met in 2018 when they were both actors in a play at Toronto's Tarragon Theatre in 2018. The two bonded over aspirations for their work going forward, and after the play ended, they started getting together to try and collaborate on some ideas. 

"We came up with the idea of a half-hour series around a me-like character, and it resonated," Baig says. 

"But Bilal was like, 'Why should I, a brown non-binary millennial who feels like they might be transitioning, make a story about me with you, Fab?'" Filippo says. "I was going through the end of a 15-year marriage and I went away and did some thinking about the uncertainty I was experiencing, then came back to Bilal with the suggestion that the show should be about how 'everyone is in transition.'"

Less than two years later, the show was greenlit by the CBC, though the timing turned out to not quite be ideal: it was January 2020. 

It was like a weird reality competition show where you're like, 'This is what you have to do, but you're on fire.'- Fabrizio Filippo on filming during a pandemic

"Our writers room started just after the lockdown started," Bilal says. "And it's interesting because I hadn't done anything like this before. So the only way I've learned so far how to move through TV land is virtually. Filming, of course, was in person. But every experience has been coloured by the pandemic for me so far."

"You never knew how it was going to hit you day-to-day," Fillippo says. "The number of people that could be in a room changed daily. So we really had to think on our feet. But it was an incredible production, and nobody got COVID. We were trying to keep everybody safe primarily, but also trying to get our show. Even just shooting exterior was really weird because you can't just throw up the camera because everybody's in a mask, right? It was like a weird reality competition show where you're like, 'This is what you have to do, but you're on fire.' But Bilal and I have spoken about how that kind of pressure and those limitations are part of the energy of the show and what made the show." 

Amanda Cordner (left) and Bilal Baig in Sort Of. (CBC)

As Bilal mentions, Sort Of represented their first major experience with television, and they used the differences between them and Sabi to help them navigate the work.

"Sort Of is not my life," they say. "I am fortunate enough to be able to tell stories and work with good people and get something like Sort Of out into the world. And so I just tried to practice being present in the moment. I get kind of in my head a lot and nervous about the visibility of everything, and I don't let that totally derail me but I do know that that's real. I'm not wired to be like, 'Yes, everybody, please look at me and I'll be totally comfortable.' But I understand that it's part of the work. And I think that the impact of the show is the thing that I want to be in service of and not my own ego."

Bilal hopes that impact will involve audiences being offered a "really transformative experience" through getting to know Sabi.

"I love that Sabi is just a real human and that their issues aren't tied to something that might isolate audiences," they say. "In fact, they're trying to do the same things that all people are, which is to manage their jobs and make sure that their parents are OK and be good to their friends and still figure themselves out and be on that kind of coming-of-age journey. I think that for me is the greatest gift would that people receive the story and are able to empathize with Sabi, think about Sabi, wonder what's going to happen next."

Bilal Baig and Aden Bedard in CBC's 'Sort Of.' (CBC)

While Sort Of certainly marks many milestones with respect to Canadian television in particular, it is thankfully part of a small but notable surge in visual storytelling that centres the voices of queer, trans and non-binary people of colour — something that makes Bilal feel cautiously hopeful. 

"Everyone is saying this: the more stories we have about trans people, the better it is for all of us. The more stories we have about people of colour, the better it is for all of us. The thing I'm cautiously hopeful for is that trans and non-binary folks and people of colour continue to be invited into leadership positions as well on these projects so that they can really bring all of themselves into every kind of decision making aspect that's related to creating a TV show."

"I don't know that we're totally there yet, but I want more and more of that. And I really hope that we don't become an anomaly and that we're actually part of a movement where collaborations like the one that Fab and I have are seen over and over again. But when I turn on my TV, oh my god, what we're seeing is things that I've never seen before and it's so, so exciting. And I think we can have more."

Watch Season 1 of Sort Of on CBC Gem.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Peter Knegt (he/him) has worked for CBC Arts since 2016, writing the LGBTQ-culture column Queeries (winner of the 2019 Digital Publishing Award for best digital column in Canada and nominated again this year) and spearheading the launch and production of series Canada's a Drag, variety special Queer Pride Inside, and interactive projects Superqueeroes and The 2010s: The Decade Canadian Artists Stopped Saying Sorry. Collectively, these projects have won Knegt four Canadian Screen Awards. Beyond CBC, Knegt is also the filmmaker of numerous short films, the author of the book About Canada: Queer Rights and the host of the monthly film series Queer Cinema Club at Toronto's Paradise Theatre. You can follow him on Instagram and Twitter with the same obvious handle: @peterknegt.

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