Sort Of: Queer HBO Max series is redefining TV families one messy step at a time

Sabi. (Bilal Baig)

As Sort Of season two hits screens, co-creator Bilal Baig and actor Grace Lynn Kung reflect on nuanced queer representation, found family and the universality of love.

In the first season of Sort Of viewers met Sabi (Baig), a queer gender-fluid millennial trying to figure out who they are and their place in the world. 
Family is a central theme in the show, to be found in Sabi’s friends, the family they babysit for – which comes with its own blurred lines – and their relationship with their own relatives, the Mehboobs.

In season one, Sabi reconnects with their mother, Raffo (Ellora Patnaik) as she comes to term with her child’s identity and they try to repair their relationship, while Sabi’s sister, Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) gets caught up in the messy family dynamics.

Baig explains: “The Mehboob family are really going in places that I was longing to watch on television – where South Asian people really have to deal with each other or understand each other. It doesn’t necessarily need to end in complete exile.”
They add: “In Sort Of, yes, there is natural tension and conflict with the Mehboob family not understanding each other.  But we’ve built this playground that explores Muslimness, queerness and transness.

“I want to encourage South Asians and Muslims to have these conversation whether they are queer or trans or not.”
When it comes to representation of queer people of colour, TV has regularly fallen into the trap of exclusively presenting trauma and exile as central to the character, even in shows as groundbreaking as Elite to Pose

7ven (Amanda Cordoner) and Sabi (Bilal Baig) at Bar Buk in Sort Of. (Jasper Savage)

7ven (Amanda Cordoner) and Sabi (Bilal Baig) at Bar Buk. (Jasper Savage)

And while these stories are important to show on screen, Baig wants to bring more nuance and a different perspective to how these communities are represented.

“I’m always brown, I’m always Muslim, I’m always queer, I’m always trans. I live with all these things all the time. Growing up these things didn’t actually conflict and explode for me because my mom always said ‘you’re always going to be Muslim, that’s your base’. Even in the Western world where more identities may emerge I am never going to lose this aspect of my identity. And that really grounded me.”

As Sort Of returns for season two, everything is to play for with the arrival of the patriarch, Sabi’s father, Imran.

“He is grappling with the reality of his family,” Baig says, “and how they completely function without him which brings pain for him.”
There’s also a new dynamic to explore in the Kaneko-Bauer household – the family Sabi babysits for.

In season one of Sort Of, Sabi was forced to reckon with their own relationships when the mother of the family, Bessy, fell into a coma.

Although Bessy was in a coma for the majority of the first season, through various flashbacks and insights into her life we discovered both her queerness and her special connection with Sabi. 

Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) and mom Raffo (Ellora Patnaik) in Sort Of. (Jasper Savage)

Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) and mom Raffo (Ellora Patnaik). (Jasper Savage)

One scene in season one between the two characters sees them flirting at the bar Sabi works at.

“I feel like we were a little bit surprised,” says Grace Lynn Kung, who plays Bessy.

She teases that season two will continue to explore Bessy’s backstory and identity crisis, something she says is a breath of fresh air when it comes to the depiction of older women on television, which she believes often lacks “nuance”.

“I feel like if you get past your twenties in terms of your questioning, you are expected to just be on a track now. The next thing is marriage, kids and death,” she says.

“Bessy already had problems and in season two, we frontloaded that. She’s not going to be digestible and great all the time. It’s true we don’t give the same space to examining our lives past adulthood.”

Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung) wakes up from her coma in Sort Of. (Ian Watson)

Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung) wakes up from her coma. (Ian Watson)

In particular, after Heartstopper star Kit Connor was forced to come out, as well as countless celebrities being accused of queerbating, giving characters the space to explore their queerness on screen is more important than ever. 

“Everyone is having to prove their bi-ness to them but who is they?” Lynn Kung asks.
She can relate on a personal level, recalling a time she appeared on a queer panel discussion that left her feeling conflicted.

“I I have always been quite private. I always thought: do they want me to prove certain things?

“I like the way we have left it with Bessy because there are so many questions. We will explore a little bit of that. When Bessy wakes up she is in a world she doesn’t identify with anymore.”

As for what to expect for everyone else in Sort Of season two, there is huge drama to come.
One of the big additions is Amanda Brugel as the mother of 7ven, Sabi’s best friend (played by Amanda Cordner). Baig said theirs is a “chaotic” and “fraught” parent-child relationship. 

We also meet Wolf, the “grounded and analytical” offspring of bar manager Deenzie, who brings “a new dynamic through their connection to Sabi.”

And, of course, we will see Sabi’s continued attempts to kickstart their love life and the complications of dating as a queer transfemme 25 year old. 

Sabi (Bilal Baig) with father Imran (Dhiendra). (Jasper Savage)

Sabi (Bilal Baig) with father Imran (Dhirendra). (Jasper Savage)

“In season one Sabi realised they want to be the best versions of themselves with whoever they end up with. This season we see them trying things that don’t completely work,” says Baig.

“Love is complicated. Sabi is also reserved and so to fall in love in that romantic way means letting some serious walls down.”

Baig concludes: “We get to explore love in all its forms. My hope is people can see platonic love, romantic love, familial love and even elements of spiritual love this season. I just want to keep talking about love, especially right now.”

Sort Of season two is now streaming in Canada on CBC and will premiere on 1 Dec on HBO Max in the US.