TORONTO — When Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo's dramedy "Sort Of" debuted on CBC and HBO Max last year, there wasn't a show like it on Canadian television.
It told the story of a gender-fluid Pakistani Canadian, Sabi Mehboob, played by Baig, coming to terms with balancing family, friendships and a career in Toronto — existential love triangles included.
Since its debut, the television series has drawn both local and international acclaim: a Peabody, three Canadian Screen Awards, and Baig being dubbed a Time magazine "next generation leader."
The theme of change and transition largely informed the way both Filippo and Baig thought about the impact of the series heading into the premiere of Season 2.
"I've been aware of the pressures of this responsibility around my visibility since the moment we even started conceptualizing what this show could be," said Baig, whose pronouns are they and them.
"It's something that I'm not allowing to crush me because I just know it can, but I'm grateful that this show came at a time that it did. I was old enough to have a lot of connections and a lot of different communities and they mean a lot to me and they're in my mind and heart when approaching this work."
The new season, which debuted Tuesday on CBC-TV and CBC Gem, takes Sabi on a continued journey of self-discovery, with their father returning to Canada and coming to terms with their identity. Meanwhile, Sabi continues their quest for what they describe as a Rachel McAdams and "The Notebook" kind of love — a type of affection that values the wholeness of their individuality and character faults.
"You know, I think what I love about this form of art the most is that it kind of proves that people are complicated and love often is too," said the 28-year-old writer and actor. "It feels good to be a part of something that is a show for everybody, and I'm grateful to be seen in different ways through this project."
The second season of "Sort Of" also brings back Amanda Cordner, actress, playwright and filmmaker as 7ven, who continues her presence as the gallery owner and best friend to Sabi.
For Cordner, the idea of being involved in Season 2 felt like a world away from the moment when she nearly refused to be a part of the project.
Bilal reached out to the artist in 2019, but due to performance fatigue, which involved several theatre projects including "A Midsummer Night's Dream" with Theatre Rusticle based in Toronto, she initially turned it down. It only took a night of adjusting to the idea of being on television before she finally accepted the role.
Heading into Season 2, Cordner said that she felt the impact of that decision in all its degrees.
"Strangers have come up to me to say how they love seeing their friends represented, especially in Toronto," said Cordner. "They love seeing Toronto portrayed boldly, and not just as some metropolis masquerading as another city, but as simply our city."
At the same time, Cordner said the response to “Sort Of” has been bittersweet, with some family members assuming the show isn't relevant to them because of its gender themes. "They hear 'queer' and they shut down," Cordner said.
Co-creator Filippo, whose acting pedigree includes "Ready or Not" and the early aughts version of "Queer as Folk," said that it's a mistake to view "Sort Of" as solely an LGBTQ experience.
To both Filippo and Baig, it's largely a series that touches on life transitions regardless of identity.
"That's what makes the show, in my opinion, one of the most cross-sectional kinds of experiences on streaming and television right now."
Filippo said that the intention, moving forward, wasn't necessarily to try their damnedest to be revolutionary but to simply showcase queerness as a matter of regular existence.
"We talked about the show at a certain point about what it meant to 'queer things up,'" said Filippo. "It was about finding relationships that existed outside of the norms. It's a definition that left sexuality, and gender, and departed from those things to become a sort of more all-encompassing idea."
In other words, Season 2, like the first, doesn't seek to educate audiences with specific terms or a series of coming-out moments. It's simply a case of Baig and the surrounding cast living their best, and at times, messy lives like many Torontonians searching for acceptance.
"This show changed my life you know, there's no question, it has changed the way I see myself existing as a person. I see everything in spectrums now," adds Filippo. "Once you start seeing the world that way, the hard lines stop in how you assume people view you and you stop taking things personally."
It's what makes "Sort Of" so essential — to the people it's about, and to a medium that has often disregarded certain people.
"I'm hearing words like 'affirming' and 'healing' in terms of what the show is offering, and people are learning things," said Baig. "It has offered people a kind of education that in a way, so many have been so grateful for."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Nov. 17, 2022.
Noel Ransome, The Canadian Press