'Sort Of' is back and still great : Pop Culture Happy Hour The HBO Max series Sort Of follows Sabi, played by Bilal Baig, a gender-fluid millennial in Toronto trying to figure their life out. They're the child of Pakistani parents, they've got a loser boyfriend, they work at a queer bookstore/bar and they're a nanny to a troubled professional couple with a couple of troubled kids. It's a slyly innovative show that makes for a great Saturday afternoon binge. The series recently returned for a second season, so we thought it would be a good time to revisit our conversation about the first season.

'Sort Of' is back and still great

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GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The HBO Max series "Sort Of" follows Sabi, a genderfluid millennial in Toronto trying to figure their life out. And there is a lot to figure out. They're the child of Pakistani parents. They've got a loser boyfriend. They work in a queer bookstore-slash-bar. And they're a nanny to a troubled professional couple with a couple of troubled kids. When the mom of that family winds up in a coma, Sabi is torn between living their life and putting the needs of others before their own. It is a slyly innovative show with good word of mouth that makes for a great Saturday afternoon binge.

The series recently returned for a second season, so we thought it would be a good time to revisit our conversation about the great first season. I'm Glen Weldon. And in this encore episode of NPR's POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR, we're talking about the fantastic television show "Sort Of."

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WELDON: Joining us today is journalist and co-host of the great podcast "FANTI," Tre'vell Anderson. Welcome back, Tre'vell.

TRE'VELL ANDERSON: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: Of course. Also joining us is Amil Niazi. She is a culture writer and panelist on the CBC's "Pop Chat." Welcome back, Amil.

AMIL NIAZI: Thanks for having me.

WELDON: Always great to have you. We're going to do some full disclosure up front. This is the abundance of caution for which NPR is known. We should say that "Sort Of" is a co-production between HBO Max and the CBC. Amil works on a CBC podcast, but she does so in a freelance capacity. She is in no way affiliated with the creation of, the production of, the promotion of the show we're talking about today, nor is there any crossover between the podcast and the production company that makes that show. So don't, as the kids say, get it twisted.

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WELDON: "Sort Of" was created by Fab Filippo and Bilal Baig, who stars as Sabi. They are the first queer, South Asian, Muslim actor to lead a Canadian primetime television series. That is a very specific achievement, but it is an achievement. As the series opens, Sabi's friend 7ven, played by Amanda Cordner, urges them to ditch their boyfriend and their various gigs and go to Berlin. But when Bessy, the mom of the family they're nannying for, who's played by Grace Lynn Kung, has a bike accident and ends up in a coma, Sabi decides to stay and help out the family. There's dad Paul, played by Gray Powell, daughter Violet, played by Kaya Kanashiro, and son Henry, played by Aden Bedard. Also in the mix is Sabi's older sister Aqsa, played by Supinder Wraich, and Sabi's mom, played by the great Ellora Patnaik. Tre'vell, let me start with you. What did you think of "Sort Of"?

ANDERSON: I love this show. It gives me everything that I have ever wanted from television. I've been telling all of my friends who are, you know, queer and trans people, and we've been having conversations about, you know, the end of "Pose" specifically...

WELDON: Sure. Sure.

ANDERSON: ...In terms of, like, what that show did for trans representation and all of that. And I think "Sort Of" is that kind of next iteration. It's that pushing our conceptions of what, you know, trans storytelling, gender-expansive storytelling can look like onscreen. And I think the show does a number of really interesting things that we can get into. But it definitely is something that I've been encouraging everyone around me to check out.

WELDON: That's great. I'm relieved to hear that because I do love this show, too. It is so warm and humane and very generous to its characters. And look; no shade to "Ted Lasso" - "Ted Lasso's" a fine show.

ANDERSON: (Laughter).

WELDON: But let me tell you - in terms of bringing warmth and funny and that generosity and some sometimes surprising but legitimately moving comedy, I think this show is doing everything "Ted Lasso" is doing but backwards and in heels. You know what I'm saying?

ANDERSON: Definitely.

WELDON: Amil, what did you think?

NIAZI: Yeah. I also really like the show. I think it accomplishes so much with such gentleness and a kind of restraint that I think is so realistic and instantly welcoming. You know, you feel sort of like you know these people. They feel lived-in. You know, I never felt this kind of instant connection with a pilot episode before.

WELDON: Right.

NIAZI: And I think that just speaks so much to the storytelling and to the richness of each character - that they all are so fulsome and sketched out, that there doesn't really feel like there's necessarily - of course, Sabi is the star, but they are so much a part of an ecosystem that immediately beckons you. And I think that that's just so refreshing. On top of the fact that it is such a groundbreaking, exciting and interesting show, it's also just a lovely show.

ANDERSON: Yeah. I love what you mentioned about how regular the show is. And I - but I think that is part of its importance, right? I feel like when we see trans characters, nonbinary characters on screen, so much of the narrative around those types of characters are - it's about our difference. It's about our gender. It's about coming out. It's about, you know, clamoring to be desired or accepted by literally everyone around us. And what I find really interesting about this show is that, like, Sabi is loved. Sabi is desired. And, you know, there's some issues that we working through with the mother character. But, like - but that's also real. Like, as a nonbinary person, I'm working through issues with my mother - right? - about my identity. But that's part of the story, but it's not the story as it relates to Sabi.

And I think they have done a really great job at building out this world in which this nonbinary person, their best friend who is a lesbian, mixed-race, Black person - they're living. They're thriving. They're loving. They're making some mistakes, you know, through it as well. But it doesn't feel didactic. It doesn't feel like a very special episode.

WELDON: Right, right.

ANDERSON: It just feels real in really interesting ways to me.

WELDON: Yeah. It is a sitcom, and it is using the sitcom format, but it is playing with it in a real way. Like, I said a few weeks back that Baig's affect is so sardonic and so deadpan in those opening scenes that this show kind of snuck up on me because I figured the character of Sabi - when you see them on a sitcom, they're usually the foil. They're not the main character. They're the person who always has the quip. They're in control. They're cool. They're distant. They're the smartest one in the room. They have the most together. That is provably false here, and I love that about it. And I also figured, OK, this show can be funny if that's our main character because this is who they are, but they're going to be funny in the same way. It's kind of self-limiting when you build a show around somebody like that. Boy, though, when they are called to bring it - the scene where Sabi's mom sees them in makeup for the first time...

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ELLORA PATNAIK: (As Raffo) Your face. You're crying.

WELDON: ...That brought me up short. That cut me off at the knees again and again. Baig in particular is riding this line between keeping everyone at a distance and showing us, the viewers - not necessarily other people, but showing us, the viewer - how open and struggling and wounded they are.

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BILAL BAIG: (As Sabi Mehboob) Wait. That's all you want to say?

PATNAIK: (As Raffo) I can't remember the last time I saw you cry.

WELDON: It's a fascinating performance.

NIAZI: And I think that that scene is one of the most powerful in the entire series. The very real tension but also the very real love that exists between Sabi and their mom is so ever present. It's a third character. It's just sort of living there between them. And I think what Baig does so well is play on a lot of different perceptions and misconceptions about many communities, including the South Asian community. And, you know, it's such a matriarchal community. And the love and acceptance of your mother - and I can say this as the daughter of a Pakistani woman - it's something that you're always reaching for and always striving to understand. And so much is said, even unspoken, in that scene that I just...

WELDON: Yeah.

NIAZI: It sat with me for a long time too, Glen. And I loved that, you know, there were a few little hints, a little tells to the community. The mother has this yogurt container, and you don't know until the end that there's, you know, chicken and rice in there, but if you are the child of Pakistani immigrants, you sort of knew immediately what was in there. And I think that that's another powerful part of this type of show is that it's so relatable. I love that you brought up "Ted Lasso." It also makes me think of "Shrill." It is very much for specific communities and speaks of very specific experiences and yet is instantly relatable to all.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

NIAZI: And I think that that is, as you said, Tre'vell, what is so exciting about this iteration of shows is that it no longer has to be very specifically made to a small community. It can speak to everyone and yet connect with those of us who have lived these experiences before.

WELDON: Right. The mom is not permitted to just be the mom that we have seen in a lot of pop culture before. She is so rounded. And she's allowed to be where she's from. She's allowed to be shaped by her community, by her culture. But she's allowed to be an individual. Tre'vell, you mentioned the character or the best friend, 7ven. Pop culture is filled with that best friend character. And in lesser hands - and I'm talking about the writing but also the performance - in lesser hands, that character is a cliche. Every other word out of their mouth is the patriarchy. But that ends up being a very specific performance. That is a fully realized person.

ANDERSON: Yeah. It's a character that goes on a journey throughout the first season as well. I really love that character because it is yet another example of, like, the complexities of our lives and the ways in which they end up being not only a support system for Sabi but also this broader community when we get into the conversation about the kids that Sabi takes care of. I just find it really, really interesting the ways that they have been able to incorporate the very unique experience of a Black mixed-race person in this broader conversation and broader narrative where you have all of these other cultures and communities also kind of percolating and swirling around. I think it goes back to that point that you mentioned about so many of these other characters that aren't Sabi are also allowed to have kind of fully realized storylines and identities as well in ways that we don't often see those types of characters being afforded in other types of projects.

WELDON: Absolutely. Amil, let me ask you a question. How Canadian is this show? On a scale of one to being named Gordy, right?

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WELDON: Or on a scale of one to having them know your order at Tim Hortons, how Canadian - does this breathe Canada-ness to you?

NIAZI: It does, and it doesn't. And I say that it doesn't - and this is no shade to my home country, but it doesn't feel Canadian in that it has this kind of separation from stereotype. I think a lot of Canadian shows rely on Tim Hortons orders or hockey rinks in the backyard, and it's such a specific experience of Canada that so many of us have never had and struggle to understand or relate to. And yet it is very much Canadian in the sense that it centers Toronto. There's a lot of scenes filmed a half a block away from my house, which is very - always very exciting when, you know, Toronto is not a stand-in for Chicago or New York or...

WELDON: Right.

NIAZI: ...Whatever Midwestern town. And it's also a very modern Canadian story. And so in that respect, I think a lot of people who have sort of waited very patiently for a Canadian story to represent who they are, this is finally it and getting us closer to that. But it's also, yeah, refreshingly not Canadian in that it doesn't fall back on some of those tropes that you mentioned - cheekily (laughter).

WELDON: Sure. Of course. Now, Tre'vell, you touched on this already, but in terms of rep sweats, you know, when you know your community is going to get represent and you have that white-knuckle worry - look; it is the year of our lord 2022. I get that. But this is going to be a lot of folks' first up-close encounter with the concept of identifying as nonbinary. That's a lot of weight for a sitcom to carry, and maybe it's unfair to expect it to carry it, but it does carry it. How does it handle that?

ANDERSON: I think it handles it actually very well. I think one thing that nonbinary people, trans people can appreciate about this show is, you know, Sabi is a character that is very subjective in their personhood, by which I mean while they're, you know, still working through things, they are able and they're given a voice and some agency in a number of different situations. One of my favorite scenes is from the episode where 7ven throws an Ellen party.

WELDON: Yep.

ANDERSON: And all of the attendees at the party have to come dressed as a different Ellen throughout history. And there's a whole bunch of Ellen Pompeos 'cause everybody's in scrubs. And there's a scene in which Sabi, who has on a mask, and another Ellen has on a mask, and they're getting hot and heavy. And they're exploring each other's bodies. And then they both take off their masks. And as somebody who consumes a lot of trans and gender-expansive images on screen, that is a scene that often, you know, ends in rejection or violence or some sort of distasteful response. And I had that anxiety going into it. But to see how they treated that was really beautiful and really affirming. And I think that is the type of thing that, like, separates this show from other efforts to show, you know, nonbinary experiences on screen that still succumb to some of these tropes and stereotypes that, ultimately, don't afford us as nonbinary people the same humanity as other folks.

WELDON: Exactly. I want to spend more time with these characters. The last episode raises the specter of the dad. There are places to go with this. But how do you guys feel? Is this - A, does this feel self-contained? Do you want to kind of leave this show where it is? Or do you want a Season 2?

NIAZI: I want to see more, especially because I think what was so powerful throughout this season was how identity shifts and shapes each character.

WELDON: Right.

NIAZI: And there was a great line from one of the doctors speaking about the mother, played by Grace Lynn Kung, Bessy, who is in a coma.

WELDON: Right.

NIAZI: And the doctor is talking about how difficult it can be to re-find your sense of self.

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UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) When someone emerges from a coma, it can be a struggle to regain their identity. The links between who they are and who someone else is might be confusing. The present and the past, what's real and what's not real - everything a blur.

NIAZI: And I just thought that that was such a powerful parallel to Sabi's character, to the mother who is also trying to find her sense of self apart from her husband and in connecting with, you know, Sabi. And it just sort of gave me a chill because I thought it was such a succinct way of talking about identity without, you know, hammering it or sort of bludgeoning you with it. It was just - that's exactly what this journey is for Sabi. It's about connecting to their sense of self, both sort of in the rear view but also in facing what their future can look like. And so I really want to see what happens with Bessy and how her identity comes to be shaped and how her sort of concept of herself in motherhood is changed by that experience and how - you know, one of the most exciting relationships is Bessy and Sabi to me and how they reflect each other and challenge each other. And so that's something I would love to see explored further in a Season 2.

ANDERSON: Yeah. I feel like there is so much that we got hinted at in the first season that could really be explored. And I like that point that you made, Amil, about this idea of identity and it shifting. I feel like that is the overall - like, the overarching theme of the entire show. And I think it's a theme that can get bogged down in the gender stuff, which I think is very obvious and we've talked about a lot. But the ways that that concept shows up for so many of the different characters - you mentioned the mom of the family that Sabi takes care of. But also, Sabi's mom is going through an identity transition of sorts. And so, like, there's just so much to explore. And I'm particularly interested in what life will look like for Sabi now that they have this kind of further realization, this further power and, like, speaking up in ways that they did not earlier in the season that we start to see them doing.

I did want to note a - you know, the whole idea about, you know, Sabi being the nanny, this caretaker archetype thing that queer characters, characters of color are sometimes pigeonholed into in narratives that end up being about largely the white people around them. I will say, I do think that this show is doing really interesting things with it, considering the cultural element that we have with the mother and being a child of Pakistani immigrants. And so I think it does subvert that trope in really interesting ways. But I just wanted to, you know, sprinkle that on top.

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WELDON: Noted.

NIAZI: I did like how much of the relationship between Sabi and their mom, the tension, has just as much to do with the fact that they are a nanny...

WELDON: Yep.

NIAZI: ...And that the mom is so embarrassed and ashamed of that because that's the whole reason she brought her family to this country. And it's a great - an added layer. As you say, Tre'vell, it's nice that they are exploring it in a way that feels fresh.

ANDERSON: Yeah. Yeah.

WELDON: Yeah.

NIAZI: Because it's not just about the identity and the gender of Sabi; it's about the layers of history and sort of family tension and background that is at play that's very interesting and offers, like, an extra layer, potentially, for Season 2 to explore.

WELDON: Yep.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

WELDON: I mean, that's the thing, right? It's surprising that - the fact that she's really upset Sabi's a nanny. But it also makes a lot of sense.

ANDERSON: Yeah.

WELDON: That's the freshness you're talking about. Look; you've heard us talking about this show for a while. This show hasn't got a lot of promotion. The algorithm is not going to suggest it to you. You are going to have to go looking for it. It's also a very bingeable show, right? These are eight episodes. They're each 20 minutes long. You'll - just make an afternoon of it. Trust us.

ANDERSON: Yes.

NIAZI: (Laughter).

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WELDON: Well, we want to know what you think about "Sort Of." Find us at facebook.com/pchh and at Twitter at @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Thanks to both of you for being here and helping me talk about this show.

ANDERSON: Thank you.

NIAZI: Thank you.

WELDON: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. And we'll see you all tomorrow.

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