'Sort Of' Review: Bilal Baig has created a funny, tender and humane gem This eight-part comedy, which centers on a gender-fluid millennial of Pakistani heritage, takes issues that are often used as hot buttons and treats them as an everyday, often funny part of life.

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HBO Max's low-key gem 'Sort Of' is funny, tender and humane

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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. The new Canadian comedy series "Sort Of" is now playing on HBO Max. It was written, co-created and stars Bilal Baig, the first queer, transfeminine South Asian Muslim ever to star in a prime-time show in Canada.

Our critic-at-large, John Powers, found the series to be a warm, low-key charmer.

JOHN POWERS, BYLINE: It might be hard to believe, but modesty was once considered a virtue. These days, of course, our world is dominated by people and expressions of pop culture that keep telling you they're big and important. If you call a TV show modest, it sounds as if you're saying that it's bland and unambitious, a loser in the great "Squid Game" of modern life. So let me assure you that I'm not being dismissive when I praise the new HBO Max series "Sort Of" for its modesty.

Centering on a genderfluid Toronto millennial of Pakistani heritage, this eight-part Canadian comedy about identity is not self-important or in-your-face. Created by its star, Bilal Baig, and director Fab Filippo, this under-the-radar show flies by in 20-minute installments that are funny, tender and humane. Baig stars as Sabi Mehboob, the nonbinary child of Pakistani immigrants, who has long tresses, wears dresses and goes by the pronoun they. Still seeking a place in the world, Sabi has two part-time jobs - as a bartender in an LGBTQ bar and as a nanny for the mixed-race kids of a designer, Bessy - played by Grace Lynn Kung - and her narcissistic jerk of a husband, Paul - that's Gray Powell.

Sabi's about to move to Berlin with their equally nonbinary best friend, 7ven, when Bessy gets in an accident and falls into a coma. Should Sabi still go? And what to do about Sabi's mother, who's discovering that the person she thinks of as her son is not what she and her husband had expected? Here, Sabi is being interviewed by Bessy when first applying for the job as nanny.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SORT OF")

GRACE LYNN KUNG: (As Bessy) So why do you want to work with kids?

BILAL BAIG: (As Sabi) I don't know. I like how they process stuff. Like, they don't rush to put things in boxes. Like I am - I was in electrician school before this. I found it tricky because everyone was in...

KUNG: (As Bessy) Boxed?

BAIG: (As Sabi) I don't know. Like, everyone was a certain kind of person, but I'm not that kind of person. I don't know. I'm not making sense.

KUNG: (As Bessy) No, no, no. Yes, you are.

BAIG: (As Sabi) I am?

KUNG: (As Bessy) Yeah. It's like, you know, labels will raise us up until they strangle us to death, you know (laughter)?

BAIG: (As Sabi) Yeah. So I'd like to be around kids for a bit.

POWERS: You know, "Sort Of" is akin to personal comedies like "Girls," "Fleabag" and "Better Things." Where classic sitcoms were wound tight to squeeze every possible laugh, these new shows are looser, less mechanical, more filled with feeling. They have time for the drift of daily life, be it 7ven and Sabi's loving banter or fights over Paul and Bessy's kids eating too much sugar. While Sabi's story is carefully structured with a clear arc and niftily rigged time leaps, you never feel it forcing an agenda.

Nor is it edgily transgressive, like, for instance, Lena Dunham's nude scenes that broke taboos by showing an actual woman's naked body on TV screens. On the contrary, the show's at its worst in those rare moments when its style tries to be hip. Whatever radicalism "Sort Of" possesses is quiet. So quiet that some viewers may find it too tame, too - dare I say it - Canadian, though one should never forget that Canada produced Joni Mitchell and David Cronenberg. The show takes issues that are often used as hot buttons - gayness, trans life, racial difference, interracial relationships - and with decent good humor, treats them as an everyday, often funny part of life.

"Sort Of" is held together by the sweet-faced presence of Baig, a queer, trans-feminine playwright and performer with a gentle charisma. Where Michaela Coel wanted to bowl you over with bravura in "I May Destroy You," Baig low-keys it. Baig nails wisecracks by not hitting them too hard and lets the slightest shift of expression register the conflict between the longing to be personally free and a sense of responsibility for others. Sabi is blessed, or maybe cursed, with being nice.

"Sort Of" begins at a birthday dinner, when Sabi's cute white boyfriend, who also has a straight girlfriend, accuses Sabi of not seeing him. He's just the first person to say this in a show where almost everybody feels that they're not seen for who they really are, but are forced into rigid identities that don't really contain them. If "Sort Of" has a governing idea, it's hinted at in its title, which suggests that nobody is wholly one thing. Everyone is sort of this and sort of that and on their way to becoming sort of something else.

GROSS: John Powers reviewed the new comedy series "Sort Of," which is streaming on HBO Max.

We were so sad to learn today that the jazz songwriter, singer and pianist Dave Frishberg died yesterday. He was 88. He wrote great songs; witty songs like "My Attorney Bernie," "I'm Hip" and "Quality Time"; ballads like "Heart's Desire" and "Sweet Kentucky Ham"; and kid songs for "Schoolhouse Rock!", like "I'm Just a Bill." Many singers recorded his songs, including Rosemary Clooney, Blossom Dearie, Diana Krall, Susannah McCorkle and Rebecca Kilgore. I love his music and feel so lucky that he performed several times on our show. We're going to produce a tribute to him, which will feature sometime soon. For now, we'll end the show with one of his songs. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU ARE THERE")

DAVE FRISHBERG: (Singing) In the evening, when the kettle's for tea, an old familiar feeling settles over me. And it's your face I see, and I believe that you are there. In our garden, when I stop to touch a rose and feel the petals soft and sweet against my nose, I smile, and I suppose that, somehow, maybe you are there. When I'm dreaming and I find myself awake without a warning, and I rub my eyes and fantasize and all at once, I realize it's morning.

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