Bilal Baig understands the weight and responsibility that comes with being the first queer South Asian Muslim actor to lead a Canadian primetime TV series. But the queer and transfeminine performer, who uses gender-neutral pronouns, said trans and nonbinary creators are still faced with the pressure of depicting an entire community with a single character or ensemble.
“I’m somebody who has consumed a lot of trans and nonbinary content in an effort to see myself in media and art somewhere, and I think we can only start to take real risks in our art making when we know there are multiple representations out there of these communities,” Baig told NBC News in a phone interview. “I just think it helps expand our consciousness of who is a part of these communities and how diverse we actually are.”
“Sort Of,” a groundbreaking new dramedy series set in Toronto, does just that. Co-created by Baig and Fab Filippo (“Queer as Folk”), the series — which premiered this fall on CBC in Canada and has now arrived on HBO Max — follows Sabi Mehboob (Baig), a gender-fluid millennial who straddles various identities as a bartender at an queer bar/bookstore, the youngest child in a Pakistani family and the nanny of a wealthy downtown family.
When Sabi’s best friend, 7ven (Amanda Cordner), presents them with an opportunity to live in Berlin, a historically queer mecca, Sabi instead decides to stay and care for the kids they nanny, whose mother, Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), has just gotten into a serious accident. In the process, Sabi feels like every aspect of their life is in transition, leading to a fascinating exploration of race, culture, sexuality and gender identity.
Sabi’s evolution “is very subtle,” Baig said. “I think they budge an inch in their life over the course of this first season, but that inch budging actually opens them up to a sea of possibilities. They start in such a guarded place, and the walls just come down by a fraction, and I think opening yourself up in this way means that there’s so many different things that can come from being able to embrace who you are and feel a little bit more comfortable in your skin.”
Baig and Filippo first met in 2018, when they both appeared as actors in a play called “Theory” at Toronto’s Tarragon Theatre. The two bonded over a shared desire to create their own work and, after the play ended, conceptualized the idea of a half-hour comedy series that centered on a character loosely inspired by Baig.
But before agreeing to sign on to their first TV project, Baig asked Filippo an incisive question: “Why should I, a brown nonbinary millennial who feels like they might be transitioning, make a story about me with you?” After taking some time to consider the uncertainty that he was feeling at the end of his 15-year marriage, Filippo returned and said that he, too, was going through a transition. Simply put, he wanted to create a show where every character, not just Sabi, is “transitioning and evolving” — a notion that resonated deeply with Baig, who “loved hearing a cis person use the word ‘transition.’”
Over the course of the eight-episode first season, Paul (Gray Powell), the father of the kids Sabi watches, is forced to confront his own shortcomings as a husband, father and employer; his own ideas of masculinity; and the microaggressions that have hurt Sabi and Paul’s own family.
“I think it’s about how to actually work with people and collaborate and let go of some control. I think we’re really asking some questions around how we share this global world together, like Sabi and Paul together, and what it means for them to coexist,” said Baig, who later added that creating a character like Paul was a way to get cisgender men like him to connect with the show and, in turn, develop more empathy for trans and nonbinary people in general.
Meanwhile, Raffo (Ellora Patnaik), Sabi’s 50something Pakistani Muslim mother, also discovers that she has been largely unaware of her own child’s transition and spends her newfound free time attempting to reconnect. As a result, she must reconcile her love for Sabi with the more traditional values held by the men in her family, including her husband, Sabi’s father.
It’s a unique dynamic that was discussed extensively in the writers’ room, which included multiple queer South Asian writers, Baig said. “We just wanted to see a relationship that really felt like there were no villains between Sabi and Raffo, that neither of them are actually antagonistic towards each other.”
“It really is this one-step-forward, two-steps-back kind of dance between the two of them until they get to this place of really committing to each other, no matter what,” Baig added. “I think that is exciting in terms of what that means for her, what that means for a South Asian woman of her age to really examine what it means to be a mother and then what it means to commit to children — particularly Sabi — who don’t fit in the norm and where that will take her.”
From the moment that Baig and Filippo pitched this series (first to Sienna Films, a production company based out of Toronto, and then to the CBC), producers and executives made it clear that they wanted Baig to create a world that not only felt truthful to their own experiences, but also felt universal to a lot of others. For Baig, this meant creating a lead character that “wasn’t textbook sassy with finger snaps and perfectly articulated reads on people,” they said. “I’ve just seen enough of that in queer and trans content that it does start to perpetuate this notion that all of us must be like this. [So] what if we went the total opposite direction and presented a character who’s a little more inward and not so sassy?”
And while they serve as the lead actor, co-creator and executive producer, “the show was never just a singular story,” Baig said. “Our writers’ room was full of people of different ages, genders, sexualities and skin colors, so we wanted to make a space where people felt like they could also bring their perspectives and their lived experiences into the fold.”
After fleshing out Sabi’s world, Baig worked with the creative team to cast trans and nonbinary actors in such roles and to prioritize the casting of LGBTQ actors in roles that were not specifically scripted as such. In the complicated conversation of which actors should be allowed to play which parts, Baig said that trans actors should unequivocally play trans characters, “because, to me, it sends a really harmful message when we cast cis people in those roles. In my level of experience as a trans person consuming content, I see nuance and authenticity being missed when cis people playing those parts.”
But it gets a little more complicated “when we’re talking about queerness, because there is a fluidity to queerness that doesn’t feel the same as in the trans world for me,” they added. “There’s so many people in my life who don’t identify 100 percent as straight and definitely don’t identify 100 percent as queer. I’m in a space where I’m open to people defining queerness for themselves and bringing that to their work. But the bottom line for me is a show like this wouldn’t work if it didn’t feel real and authentic, so we were just searching for that all the time in our casting.”
Shortly after the show premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, Baig revealed that, in a case of life imitating art, they decided to come out to their own immigrant parents, who knew very little about their career and gender identity.
“We’re slowly moving through it. I think we’re in this place [where] I’m just trying to gently let them into more of my truth,” they explained. “I think they’re curious, and I think it’s also a lot of information. It was difficult for sure, and I think it will take some time before they can really settle in with this show and with seeing their child in this new way. But if I put myself in their shoes, I can see how this was a big shift.”
At the end of the day, aside from making people laugh and “feel cozy and warm when they’re receiving this story,” Baig hopes that “Sort Of” will become part of the slight but steady advances that Hollywood has recently seen in onscreen trans and nonbinary representation.
“When trans and nonbinary people aren’t a part of conversations, aren’t acknowledged as actual people, that literally is the definition of dehumanizing or erasing human existence,” Baig said. “To bring this show to so many people all over the world proves that we do exist and that we are complicated people who have relationships with cis folks and non-cis folks and children and adults — we really are a part of the fabric of this world.”
“I really feel like I’m a part of something bigger,” they added. “What I’m hearing back from communities in Canada who have now accessed all eight of the episodes [is] there’s a real, fierce appreciation for the nuance, because I think it changes lives. People can use shows like ‘Sort Of’ to help parents or friends or lovers understand them better, and that is so powerful.”
“Sort Of” is now streaming on HBO Max.