tv review

In Sort Of, Love Means Not Having All the Answers

Photo: HBO Max

When I go about my day and a casually ignorant comment comes my way — something we used to call “microaggressions” — I usually give very little. Maybe a cocked brow or an “uh-huh.” It’s, like, whatever.

Sabi, the gender-fluid protagonist conceived and played by Bilal Baig in CBC and HBO Max’s Sort Of, gives a great whatever. Sabi uses they/them pronouns; they have choppy bangs and long curls and a penchant for bangles, crop tops, and shiny things. They’re perceptive and droll, someone who knows their body can elicit a response — some form of confusion as cis-normie people attempt to mentally slot them into a preexisting taxonomy. So they might stonewall or deadpan: totally. Sabi works two jobs, as a bartender and a nanny to two half-Asian, half-white kids (very Toronto); in the pilot, the family they work for — well, really, the man of the house, Paul (Gray Powell, looking like a frowny Duplass brother) — has decided to let Sabi go. He offers to help them find another family because of how difficult it might be, he says, “for someone like you.” He tries to amend the comment and Sabi cuts him off. “It’s whatever.”

Initially, the timing seems opportune: Sabi’s best friend 7ven (a delightful Amanda Cordner) is moving to Berlin and asks Sabi to join her for an adventure in queer self-actualization. But when the mother of the kids, Bessy (Grace Lynn Kung), gets into a bike accident and becomes comatose, Paul asks Sabi to stay on. Sabi’s sister Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) wants them to go abroad. “Some things are just too big to be choices,” she says. “Acknowledge that.”

But they stay, a choice that appears, at first, like inertia — their friends worry they’re allowing life to happen to them. Sabi and Paul form an uneasy family: Sabi is great with the kids Violet (Kaya Kanashiro), 13, and Henry (Aden Bedard), 10, a dynamic Paul finds threatening as he realizes just how little he knows about his own family. He gets abrasive and possessive; meanwhile, Sabi must do their job while brown and nonbinary. In a tightly written scene, they go to the school to pick up Violet, who’s been suspended for pushing a fellow classmate “in the vaginal region.” A finicky principal is reluctant to allow Sabi to take her home, even though he’s checked their ID and their name is on the list of emergency contacts. Violet, in the key of adolescent brat, pretends not to know them. Sabi, on the phone with Paul, tells him to “white-savior it,” and the principal relents.

The demand from outsiders upon seeing someone like Sabi is this: Explain yourself. And what both Sabi the character and Sort Of the show insists upon is doing so on their own terms. If there is a representational trap for shows by non-white, gender non-conforming people to pander to those who would dismiss them outright, Sort Of sets its own rhythms. (The buoyant, genre-spanning score was also conceived by a “music factory” of five Toronto artists.) The eight-episode season is wonderfully confident; the writing is lean and sharply drawn, and scenes aren’t wasted with exposition or explanation. The first interaction between Sabi and their mother Raffo (Ellora Patnaik) aches with unspoken tension. Sabi’s been dodging her calls for the entirety of the pilot when she shows up unannounced on their doorstep with yogurt containers filled with chicken jalfrezi. They both catch each other off guard. It’s the first time Raffo sees Sabi as themselves, in a dress and full makeup, her own bangles on Sabi’s wrists. Then she notices something else: Sabi is crying.

Sort Of is gentle with its characters even as the stakes are existential. Everyone feels fully inhabited, and as Sabi’s carefully compartmentalized worlds begin to collide, a fizzy alchemy occurs. Paul has his own crisis of faith as he creeps through Bessy’s phone; 7ven and Violet form a charming duo. Sabi’s decision to stay with the kids reveals itself as an act of care for Bessy for reasons that aren’t completely apparent until the end of the season. Sort Of suggests that what we owe ourselves may be bound up with what we owe one another.

Most of the scenes before the title credits end with a question posed directly to a character, like “Are you insane?” or “You okay?” “Sort of” is an answer — kind of. A yes with a shrug. It can seem like an equivocation, but really, it’s a preference for the grays and in-betweens, because how can any of us be certain about anything? When Sabi meets a new friend, Olympia (Cassandra James), at 7ven’s house party, she punctures Sabi’s self-protective defenses with her own assuredness. “We’re not so different from everyone else,” she tells them over breakfast the next day. Everyone is in a state of transition. One particle becoming another, and then another.

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In Sort Of, Love Means Not Having All the Answers