Bilal Baig didn’t set out to be a TV star, nor did they set out to define the experience of being a non-binary person in a world only just beginning to understand, and accept, them. Instead, the self-described shy, introverted co-creator and lead of Sort Of got their start in theatre, before falling backward into developing a show based loosely around their own life as a gender non-conforming child of immigrants.
The intent was to tell a story about the “complexity and fluidity of all humans.” It was a lofty goal Baig (who identifies as queer and transfemme) shot for by putting together an ensemble cast with a carefully interwoven web of problems. Ultimately, all those threads lead to Sabi, a non-binary Torontonian working as a nanny in the city, while simultaneously dealing with a mother who can’t fully accept their identity.
Even with that accomplished, Baig was a realist — thinking the show could easily be cancelled, or simply pull in the modest audience a Canadian program can be expected to. But in the end, the result was much more. After the first season debuted in November 2021, it snagged three Canadian Screen Awards and a Peabody, was named one of the best shows of the year by the New York Times and Baig themself was dubbed a “next generation leader” by Time magazine.
And there’s still much more to go. The show’s second season debuted this week — focusing on Sabi’s hunt for “that uncomplicated, Rachel McAdams love” — with a potential, though not officially confirmed, third season on the way.
Baig sat down with the CBC to talk about the show’s future, their own past and what it’s like to mine — and adapt — personal trauma for comedy.
All right, I want to jump right in and ask: does Rachel McAdams know about her place in Sort Of Season 2?
Ah, I don’t know! I think I’m allowed to say this: We reached out for a potential cameo in Season 2, and I think heard back from her team that she wasn’t available. But I don’t even know if her team relayed to her that there’s this show that wants you on it.
At least we did see some cameos this season, specifically Canadian. We get Kids in the Hall’s Scott Thompson, we got Vancouver artist Puppyteeth. I mean we get a Canadian Tire name drop, which seemed surreal to hear in prestige TV. Is Sort Of trying to put Canada on the map?
You know, it’s not that — it’s intentional in that we know this is our city, we like to make some jokes that include specific references. We were pretty intentional about the inclusion of Amanda Brugel and Scott Thompson, and our second season, it felt like things were just kind of opening up a little bit more and our reach was a bit wider. But you know, for us, it’s just fun first, and then anything political is kind of second nature. And I feel like we apply that to all aspects of our show.
Speaking of that balance, Sort Of is a comedy. It’s also very much a drama — I think one thing it’s most often been compared to is Fleabag, but with a non-binary character front and centre. How hard was it to balance aspects of comedy with the difficulties of existing in a space that might be hostile to you?
In Season 1, I remember having a conversation with Fab [Filippo], who’s the co-creator on Sort Of, and our writers about how maybe an approach to this world that we’re creating is that, of course it’s real — and in its realness, it’s both funny and sad and heartache-y.
But maybe we are just a bit gentler in showing Sabi existing in the world because one thing we definitely didn’t want to do was just recreate a bunch of abuse and trauma and watch this person kind of move through that. Because I feel like I’ve seen enough of it, particularly for trans people, trans women of colour. It’s that balance of, we’re going for real, we’re going for honest — with a side of gentleness. I think when people are relaxed and easy and comfortable, they can laugh more.
That’s what I want people to know: that we exist in the world in this way, too.
As I understand, non-binary fans of the show have reached out to you to say how impactful it was to see a non-binary character front and centre. Was that something Sort Of was made for?
I will say cis people have — as well, people in their 70s have — lots of different walks of life. But yes, there’s a bulk of messages that I get that are from trans and non-binary folks. It matters a lot that they feel like this is a show that feels like it’s made for them. Because I think why representations of our communities have been harmful in the past is there’s often someone secretly, or not so secretly, at the top of the pyramid who’s not from the community, who’s making decisions about our flamboyant, extreme, dramatic lives. And so many of the people I know just wanna make money and go to bed, you know?
So it does really, really matter to me. It warms my heart a lot because that’s what I want people to know: that we exist in the world in this way, too, you know?
But there is still that element of acceptance, of hardship — particularly this season with Sabi’s growing alienation from their parents over gender identity. How much of the pain from this season is drawn from your own life, and what has it been like to share the end result with your parents?
My relationship to my parents is quite different than the relationship Sabi has to both their parents. I go to a different place to find Sabi’s relationship to the two of them and that level of pain or heartbreak. It’s not that that doesn’t exist between me and my parents, it’s just we don’t talk as much.
I remember a childhood where they were quite busy and working a lot to make sure that there was money and food and resources, and so it’s a fairly distant relationship. And I think that that has good things about it and not great things.
That sounds difficult.
I kinda get it. Like, the world I’m in is so different from the world that they know and grew up in. So even having a TV show or being the lead of it and co-creator — I think they kind of get it, but they don’t even know exactly what those things mean. They trust that I’m doing well, and then that creates more distance, because they’re like ‘Oh, you’re good.’
I believe you wrote an email to your parents to tell them that you’re basically a superstar now, but they didn’t really intellectualize that — or weren’t really aware of your success.
I definitely did not use language like ‘superstar,’ just to be clear about that [laughs]. But I did let them know, ‘This is how I move through the world. These are my identities and there’s a show that’s going to come out very soon that explores all of that.’ And I think their grappling had to do with understanding who their child is, and what they’re saying about themselves.
And there were concerns about safety, which makes sense to me — I think we all know the violence that trans people face is kind of on another level. But their response wasn’t major in any way, in any direction. That does make you a little bit, you know — sometimes you almost want a bit more of a reaction, even if it’s negative.
I’m just trying to move through it and see it from their perspective, as much as I’m living my own. But it is a movie waiting to happen: two Pakistani Muslim parents who spent more than half their life in that part of the world, has this child [gestures to self], you know?
One of the scenes that was very affecting to me was Sabi seeing essentially their younger self sitting on a couch, and they tell them what they can expect and what to watch out for in the future. What would you say to younger Bilal about coming into the world and into themself?
Something about going at your own pace. When I was younger, I felt really different in so many ways, and part of it was this kind of slowness and quietness. Especially in high school; if you’re not like loud and screaming and fighting each other, you’re just not relevant, you know?
And so I just remember, I remember judging myself a lot for being slower and processing things and [being] quiet in my exterior and all my communication with people. Not feeling important or sparkly in any way because I wasn’t really offering much. And so I think I’d say, ‘Just chill, go at your own pace. People are going to love [that] about you anyways.’ But I definitely did not know that this is what my life was going to be a couple of years ago even.
Last question: What does Sort Of mean to you? What has being on the show meant to you, to your life?
I was really nervous and terrified embarking on this, knowing that I’ve never done anything like this before and having struggled with self-worth stuff as a kid and a young person. And I’ve met so many people through this process, and there’s been a lot of love. We talk about the impact for audiences and stuff, but internally, too, I see a lot of love being exchanged and I think that’s special. Like, I really hope that whenever this ends, we can look back and know, not only was the product important and helped people out or made people laugh, but that these connections have a bit of a life of their own afterward.
And that feels really special and lucky. Like, everyone keeps telling me because I’m so new to all this, this is not typically how it goes. Shows get cancelled really quickly. It takes forever to get a show made, you might not ever see anybody you work with again afterward. But there’s something different going on here.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.