How ‘Sort Of’ is Making Canadian TV History
While representation is crucial in media, for those who are defined by their identities, representation needs to include stories that reflect all aspects of their lives. This is what makes Sort Of, an original series from CBC and HBO Max, feel so refreshingly new. It follows Sabi Mehboob, a non-binary nanny who’s still figuring out their identity when an accident forces them to face uncomfortable truths about families and themselves.
This bittersweet comedy series comes from Toronto’s Bilal Baig, a queer, trans-feminine, Muslim playwright and performer, and Fab Filippo, an award-winning actor, writer, and director. And while Sabi is non-binary, the show is not about their gender. Rather, it is about the way that our lives can parallel in a way that transcends identity.
“I guess [queer content] needs to be labeled right now,” says Amanda Cordner. The Toronto-based actor portrays 7ven, a mixed-race genderfluid artist and Sabi’s best friend on the show. “But I look forward to the days when it’s [described as] just people.”
Baig already knew Cordner when they began casting for the role of 7ven, a boisterous artist, who accepts all pronouns and is “beyond gender”, ready to embark to Berlin with Sabi in tow.
“Bilal expressed to me that this character was based off of me and they couldn’t imagine anyone else playing the role,” said Cordner, although it was not an exact depiction of her.
“I think that 7ven is further ahead than me in terms of like, wokeness,” she said. “I feel like I’m learning from her in that way.”
But like Sabi, for Cordner, Sort Of came at a time in her life when she had to decide whether to focus on the work in front of her or take a leap of faith to be a part of the show.
Intentional From Cast to Crew
From the writer’s room, to the casting, intentionality was a major part of the process. Baig and Filippo felt it was important that the actors’ perspectives and lived experiences were reflected in all parts of the process, especially in the characters’ stories.
“We were very intentional in making sure our show didn’t perpetuate stereotypes that contribute to the dehumanization of trans people and people of colour,” Baig has said on the creation of the series.
Ian Iqbal Rashid, based out of Toronto and London, England, is a part of the show’s creative team as the executive producer and a writer. Rashid, who is queer and Muslim, was approached to work on the show because of his work promoting queer South Asian stories, including organizing the Toronto South Asian film festival, Desh Pardesh.
“It felt like this show was sort of building on my life and my work,” said Rashid.
Even many of the crew, who are usually recruited without knowing much about the production they’re about to step onto, were there by choice.
“It was amazing to talk to people who consciously chose to work on this piece,” Cordner explained, “because they liked what it was about.”
The Toronto Character
While a laundry list of productions shoot in Toronto, its landscape is frequently portrayed as American cities. Sort Of, on the other hand, incorporates the city seamlessly into its story without hiding it or relying on recognizable landmarks.
“When I travel [internationally], people know Toronto and they’re excited about it. And people have dreams of going there,” commented Cordner. “I think it’s really become its own little thriving hub of culture and beauty and queerness.”
While Rashid says that the writers didn’t intend to write about Toronto, it happened organically out of the writers’ connection to the city.
“Toronto emerged as a vivid presence in the show because of our collective love and understanding of the city, and perhaps with the knowledge that a writing team and story as diverse as ours could only be nurtured by a city like Toronto,” he said.
Telling More of Our Stories
What really makes Sort Of feel revolutionary is its intent on not reducing trans people down to only their gender.
“[Sort Of shows] that all people go through the same things, the same pain and the same kind of joy, and we want love and connection and to be seen,” said Cordner. “Everybody wants to be seen.”
For the Sort Of team, this is only the beginning of queer storytelling.
“I hope that we get a chance to build on it through future seasons of Sort Of,” says Rashid, “and also other shows through other voices and other queer brown narratives so that this doesn’t have to be the only one.”
When trans and non-binary people are a part of the process from conception, it makes room for a different kind of storytelling — one that genuinely acknowleges these characters as whole people instead of relegating them to the gender-centric narratives that are the go-to.
Aside from making viewers laugh with a notably Canadian sense of humor, Sort Of has the power to influence onscreen trans and non-binary representaiton for generations to come.
Sort Of is available to stream anytime in Canada on CBC Gem, CBC’s free streaming service.