I wasn’t exactly looking for a gentle Canadian dramedy with imperfect characters whose thorny and often aloof exteriors belie their deeply compassionate and complex interiors, but Sort Of is unexpected in a lot of ways. I’m thrilled I stumbled across the series, which swept me up in its complicated, charismatic, funny, and genuine world.
Sabi Mehboob (Bilal Baig, who also created and wrote the show)—a non-binary, Pakistani-Canadian, part-time nanny and part-time bartender who originally trained to be an electrician—is still figuring some things out. We meet them when they’re taking their boyfriend Lewis (Gregory Ambrose Calderone) out to celebrate his birthday. All seems to be going well until Sabi surprises Lewis with tickets to a Post Malone concert—a selfless act of love if ever there was one. Unexpectedly, Lewis starts going on about how Sabi doesn’t really see him, and maybe isn’t even really trying to see him. This all sounds very suspect and a lot like deflection. Then the scene cuts to the next day when Sabi is walking Violet (Kaya Kanashiro) and Henry (Aden Bedard) to school. Violet is talking on and on about some girl at school to Sabi, but Sabi’s face is a vacant thousand-mile stare. “Are you listening?” Violet asks over and over, before Sabi finally responds with a deadpan, “totally.” Then they dryly correct Violet’s use of “deadass” and “shade.”
Then the scene cuts to Sabi on their bed, staring blankly at the ceiling when their sister Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) bursts into their shared apartment demanding to know if Sabi is ever going to return their mother’s phone calls. “It’s not like it’s your gender reveal party,” yells Aqsa as she stomps out the door. Sabi goes back to staring at the ceiling. Next Sabi is with their best friend 7ven (Amanda Cordner) at a small art gallery. Sabi stares fixedly at 7ven’s art pieces—large plant-covered vulvas that Sabi refers to as Chia vulvas—as 7ven repeatedly asks if they’re listening. Finally, Sabi responds with a flat, distracted “totally” before 7ven excitedly shares how she’s been offered a paid internship in Berlin, Germany.
As if purchasing Post Malone tickets, being publicly scolded by your boyfriend, and having your sister shame you about not calling your mother weren’t enough for one week, Sabi gets laid-off from their part-time nanny gig by the bumbling, out-of-touch, foot-in-his-mouth husband Paul (Gray Powell, who co-wrote the series). He gives Sabi a spiel about how the kids are getting older and don’t really need a nanny since his therapy practice (of COURSE this man who is barely capable of communication is a therapist) is in the basement. So, he says, Sabi just doesn’t need to come back after Christmas break. To which Sabi responds with a cool shrug, “Well, Merry Christmas to me.” And then Paul goes on about how he knows it might be hard to find the right set up “for someone like you” while his wife Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung) cringes and tries to disappear next to him. It was Bessy who originally hired Sabi and the two have a deep connection that transcends work (or words, really). Bessy visits Sabi at their bartending job to use her “military grade interrogation tactics” to get Sabi to share pieces of their emotional self that they don’t share with anyone else. Anyway, Sabi handles Paul’s layoff very calmly, maybe even too calmly on the surface.
It would be fair at this point if you, like I did, worry that Sabi is a distant, flat, unemotional character, but part of the beauty and joy of this show is how wrong an assumption turns out to be.
Then Sabi finds out Lewis is cheating on them with his very cisgender white exish girlfriend Mackenzie (Alanna Bale)—all blessings on whoever chose this name—and 7ven tries to convince them to go with her to Berlin, which 7ven is absolutely sure will be the mecca of all their queer dreams. Sabi is on the fence. So much is unsure in their life. But then they break up with Lewis, cutting one more tie with the city. And then they accidentally run into their mother without having the opportunity to de-femme first, which leaves them confused and even more guarded than before. (In the beginning, Sabi’s interactions with their mother feel not unlike those of a teenager—they are eager to distance themself from her before she has the chance to reject them.)
They decide it’s best to simply escape to Berlin with 7ven. Obviously, you know that’s not going to happen. No, the next day Bessy gets into a serious cycling accident that requires brain surgery and leaves her in a coma. Paul is floundering, trying to cope with his own shock—and some surprising personal revelations—and care for the children. Sabi, simply unable to cut their ties and leave while Bessy is in the hospital, chooses to forgo Berlin in favor of taking on more responsibility for the family. Literally everyone tells them this is a bad idea. That they should be going to Berlin. That they should be doing things for themself. That they should cut ties with their stale life. That they should be moving away from nannying, which, after all, isn’t a career choice. But is everyone right?
Lest you worry that I’m spoiling half the series or something, all this happens in the first episode, so… I’m not, and this series knows how to pack a lot into half an hour. And that’s not even counting the small emotional moments that carry so much weight. The looks that cross Sabi’s face convey so much more than pages and pages of expositional dialogue ever could. Or the tight dialogue that conveys worlds. Like when Sabi’s mom sees their face with makeup for the first time and says, “Your face…. You’re crying.” And when Sabi asks their mom if that’s all she wants to say and she says yes because she can’t remember the last time she saw them cry. There is so much left unsaid there, and you can hear all of it in the spaces between the words.
The scene just after Paul tells Sabi their last day will be before Christmas break is when I knew I would love this show and that I trusted the writers. Henry, whose face is almost always buried in a gaming device, runs back downstairs to catch Sabi before they leave for the day. “Sabi,” he asks. “Will you still pick us up after school tomorrow?” Sabi pointedly looks over his head at Paul before bending down to look Henry in the eye. “Yes, baby,” they say emphatically. The scene shows how deeply Sabi cares for these children. Sure, their exterior may be cool, but it’s clear that their love is deep and their understanding deeper still. It acknowledges children’s awareness of change and upheaval around them. Henry, who has only overheard conversations about Sabi leaving, is clearly undone by the impending change. Whoever wrote this scene knows children well and respects them. It is, sadly, a rare find in a show or real life. The scene also conveys why maybe all those people telling Sabi to live their own life and not get too tangled up in Bessy’s are wrong. Family comes in a lot of different forms, sometimes the experiences we need most aren’t the showiest ones, and you should never judge a career by its title.
At its heart Sort Of is a coming-of-age story where everyone is coming into their own age. Certainly the main focus is on Sabi and their acceptance of themself, but I love a story where there isn’t an age limit on figuring yourself out. Sabi and Aqsa’s mother is confronting a lifetime of putting everyone else’s needs first, plus coming to terms with what it means, as a Muslim mother married to man with traditional expectations, to have a non-binary child. Pre-coma Bessy was going through her own messy kind of life crisis that then gets peeled open without her consent or input after her brain is put on pause. 7ven confronts misogyny and must come to terms with her own vulnerabilities. Violet and 7ven share a sweet moment when Violet utters her first curse aloud—though if you can’t see the possibility for charm in that then this show might not be for you. Also, all of these people are flawed and selfish and generous and loving and sometimes small-minded and flawed again. It’s what makes them interesting to watch.
And, as is often the case in shows that allow for many stories of self-realization of one kind or another, this is a series that has a big tent definition of family. As much as a Sabi tries to keep their life compartmentalized, people keep sneaking out of their assigned boxes, meeting people they shouldn’t, caring about people in ways that are unexpected, which makes things messier than planned (and far more enthralling to watch). Have I made it all sound maudlin? Because it’s really not. There are light-hearted moments and then just outright silly and funny moments. Like when Paul says that he’s glad the kids were exposed to Sabi and Sabi responds they’re glad they exposed themself to the kids. It’s witty and funny and self-aware.
You know what else is good to watch? Sabi’s wardrobe. I don’t even know if it’s worth me using up words to describe it. It’s just really good and probably if I were a person who knew a lot about fashion I could tell you important things, but I’m not.
(Side note: A thing that for me personally was deeply disappointing is that in SEVERAL scenes people chew loudly. Honestly, why? And also, no. And finally, do not. I know there is control over sound mixing and we the viewers do not have to hear that sound. Misophonia is a real and true thing and I threw my earbuds from my ears in a very dramatic fashion more than once, which I’m saying in a humorous way, but I don’t mean that to undercut how real Misophonia is, and if you have spent your life feeling a deep, deep rage toward people who chew (or make other sounds) please know that you are not alone.)
Look, what I’m guessing, mostly from the responses I’ve seen floating around online, is that this show is sort of like cilantro. You’re going to love it or it’s going to taste like soap. So, if you start watching and you’re on the fence then please keep watching. And if you absolutely hate it, then you my have most sincere condolences that you can’t enjoy this captivatingly good show.