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‘Sort Of’ is about a nonbinary millennial figuring life out. Its star hopes to change how we see each other

By Harmeet Kaur, CNN

In the new season of the CBC and HBO Max sitcom “Sort Of,” protagonist Sabi Mehboob expresses a desire that’s at once simple and incredibly elusive.

“All I want is someone who gets me,” they tell their friend and employer Bessy. “Just, like, someone who gets me the way I wanna be got.”

Though Sabi is referring to what they’re looking for in a significant other, that longing to be seen — romantically and otherwise — courses through the show’s second season, which is now streaming on HBO Max. (CNN and HBO share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Sabi, who is nonbinary, not only navigates love and dating in Toronto but also hopes to be understood by their Pakistani immigrant family. And though “Sort Of” is especially notable for its subtle and sensitive depictions of its lead, many of the show’s other characters — from Bessy to Sabi’s mother Raffo to their best friend 7ven — are searching for the same recognition.

The universality of “Sort Of” is part of its beauty and appeal. In all its specificity, it underscores that we’re all ultimately grappling with the same things.

“If we start to accept that transition is something that we’re all moving through because it’s part of human evolution, then maybe trans and nonbinary people aren’t so different from the rest of us,” said Bilal Baig, who created the series with Fab Filippo and stars as Sabi.

Baig spoke to CNN about what it means to feel seen and how “Sort Of” might help some viewers achieve that feeling. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

The big theme of Season 1 was transition. What is Season 2 about?

It’s all about love. We talk about love in all its forms. Whether the shift is tiny or not, Sabi does come to a place at the end of the first season where they’re a little more sure of themselves. It was exciting to think about a character like that dreaming about an easy, uncomplicated love that would transcend to all their relationships — not just romantic, but family and friends and self love, too.

Wanting to feel seen is another thread that runs through the show. Why is that so important to you?

This feeling of feeling seen directly combats loneliness. When we feel seen, when we feel understood, we feel a lot less lonely in the world. Given the time that we’re in, if you feel marginal in any way, there might be a lot of deep feelings of loneliness.

If our show can let people know that they’re not alone or that to be seen is not an impossible thing for trans and nonbinary people or people of color, that’s a lot. If we’ve offered something to the world that makes people feel a little less alone, that’s a standing accomplishment in and of itself.

Who is the show for?

When we look at the diversity of the cast, it really is for everyone. We approach it in that way, applying the same level of depth and nuance to all the characters. It’s a very intentional thing because it’s about reflecting back to humanity that we are all all of these things and that we’re all on some kind of moving, transitioning journey.

It’s lovely when South Asian folks, just as much as trans and nonbinary people, have let me know how special the show feels in particular moments — when they feel like a scene or a moment in a scene was made exactly for them. We’re not quite there yet, but I can’t wait for the day where a show like this can be seen and loved and appreciated by all people.

“Sort Of” doesn’t go out of its way to explain its trans and nonbinary characters. How did you achieve that sense of authenticity?

We’re gentle in our approach. (Filippo) and I share a lot of similar qualities: A similar sense of humor, playfulness, not super into oversentimentality. When we were building this world of these characters, we approached it with an ease, a gentleness, a non-heavy hand.

It feels like a lot of the education had been done for us. Culturally, there was enough in the zeitgeist where we didn’t have to explain what a trans woman is, or that people can have different relationships, genders or whatever.

One of the big plotlines this season revolves around Sabi’s relationship with their father. What were you hoping to explore with the character of Imran?

We were so clear that it wasn’t going to be a stereotypical representation of an angry, aggressive, patriarchal South Asian man. That was not interesting to anybody.

We were more curious about what it means for somebody to find his place in his family again. The first season (established) that Imran works in Dubai and spends a lot of time there. The relationship between him and the rest of the family is not smooth necessarily, because they’re not always in touch with each other. So it was really fascinating to explore a character who’s older, South Asian, Muslim, Pakistani and trying to belong.

He’s trying to understand where the world is going, and whether he matters in it anymore. That’s a heartbreaking thing. His attempt to reconnect with his family is also in direct conflict with his inability to let go of control.

How much of what ‘Sort Of’ depicts is true to life for you and how much is aspirational?

There’s something in the quietness of this family repressing things. We’re not talking about things or skirting around things. This whole thing about Imran asking Sabi to work with him on the renovation of the house. The simpler and more direct question is: Can we just hang out? But instead, the thing that feels particularly South Asian is the ways in which we don’t say exactly what we’re feeling, especially when it’s vulnerable and big and deep. I feel that in my family for sure.

There are parts of it that are totally aspirational. (With) a lot of Raffo’s journey, I just was so curious about offering some kind of healing to queer and trans and nonbinary kids out there. If it’s not exactly their reality to have a mother who’s trying to see them, it can be nice to just experience it in a TV show. Or maybe South Asian moms across the world could discover that and something could shift.

What kind of responses have you gotten from viewers?

A lot of it has to deal with people seeing themselves and seeing each other. A lot of the messages I get are people who share that they felt their whole friend group was reflected in the show. The quality of people really feeling like they’re seeing real people moving through complicated and funny life situations is pretty major, particularly for trans and nonbinary people — feeling like that they can dig deeper into themselves and be more sure of their identities.

Sometimes parents share that the show has helped them see their children in new ways. That’s also major.

“Sort Of” and other shows that feature queer folks or people of color are often celebrated for the representation they provide rather than their artistic merits. How do you think about that as a creator?

We do a lot on our show behind the scenes. We work with writers and directors who are trans, nonbinary, South Asian, people of color. Of course, our cast looks like what it does. There’s almost a relief in knowing that this team that works on the show cares so much. We talk to each other about what we want the set to feel like, and we have to make space for lots of people.

Once you have that in place and you’re not doing it for faux reasons, you can really focus on the creative of it all. It just comes down to amazing producers and this great partner I have in (Filippo), who completely gets it. We don’t lose sleep over this.

We’re getting to a place culturally where the work can speak for itself now. I’ve seen a bit of a shift where people can acknowledge “Sort Of” as a good, solid TV show beyond all the barriers we’re breaking. I think that is a reflection of the world catching up.

What do you hope viewers take away from this season?

The season really is an invitation to meditate and reflect on love in all its forms. For anyone who watches this show, I hope they think about their family and their friends and lovers and love of their work or themselves. Even though our show for sure entered heartbreaking and heart-aching moments, it’s ultimately an exploration of the depths of love.

Will there be a Season 3?

It has not been confirmed. But we’re hopeful.

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