Bilal Baig felt particularly nervous about the release of this season. “This was messiest in so many ways and the rawest,” they say.
Growingupin the U.S., I don’t think I could have imagined a queer and nonbinary actor of Asian descent starring in a show on a major streaming platform. Bilal Baig, who co-created and starred in the HBO series “Sort Of,” defied what many of us thought was possible on American TV. And as the third and final season drops, Baig’s journey is worth both admiration and examination.
The series explores South Asian identity, chosen family, and queerness with nuance and transparency. What sets the last season apart, though, is its main character’s full lean into the complexity of their identities.
“Sort Of,” which first aired in 2021, follows nonbinary Pakistani-Canadian millennial Sabi Mehboob (Bilal Baig) as they navigate family, friendship and work life. Set in a multicultural Toronto, Sabi’s cut-and-dried humor gives the series a hilariously mundane, everyday feel. Embedded in the everyday, however, are dozens of tiny moments of noteworthy transition and in-betweenness, which serve as snapshots of a larger queer Asian experience. Sabi is constantly navigating familial expectations and constantly choosing between authenticity and disappointing their parents.
In this season, Sabi’s father, whose severe personality is palpable even though he is far away in Pakistan, passes away, freeing Sabi to make decisions they had put off for years. Feeling relieved by the death of a parent is already a complicated situation to convey, and Baig admits that they felt particularly nervous about the release of this season.
“This was messiest in so many ways and the rawest,” they say. “I think the characters are saying the realest things to each other, and sometimes they hurt each other.”
Though there was a roughness to Sabi and their father’s relationship, the characters did see each other as complex humans, and that allowed for tenderness as well. The subplot was all too real for many queer children of immigrants.
The fact that so many queer and nonbinary people have vocally supported the show in the past couple years, though, empowered Baig to feel more comfortable taking it to the next level, to choose authenticity over ease when it came to the character development and plots.
Case in point: In the third season, Sabi engages in self-destructive behaviors that land them in the hospital. This particular incident illustrates how the journey of stepping into your identity is seldom linear, and it can even be dangerous. “As trans people, we can start doing the thing that we wanted to do and then maybe feel freaked out about it for whatever reason,” they say.
When Baig and their team created this plotline, the intention was to speak directly to trans people. It didn’t seem like they were preoccupied with making their community palatable for a cis audience. It’s tempting to try and control the narrative when you are one of the very few people with your identities achieving wide visibility. Baig simply didn’t allow that pressure to change the story they actually wanted to tell.
Baig’s character engaged with conflicts that arise specifically in South Asian immigrant families with a queer kid in them, which is why the show spoke to so many people who otherwise felt completely misunderstood or dismissed. To me, the most impactful scene in this season came towards the end, when Sabi and their mom, Raffo Mehboob (played by Ellora Patnaik), go to a theater to see a classic Bollywood film together.
During a part of the movie where one of the brothers leaves the family while another one stays behind, Raffo says: “I like the one who left. I like people who do bold things.” The undertones are strong here; as much as she might struggle with Sabi’s identity, she appears to be saying that she ultimately respects a person’s courage to do what they need to do in order to be happy.
“One of the principals in our writers room was, how do we keep letting the characters surprise each other?” Baig says.
Of course, there are poignant parallels between Sabi’s life and Baig’s personal experiences. During the holidays, Baig tells me they had a long conversation with their real-life mom about their identity, and her responses surprised them. “It made me check myself a little bit around the kinds of expectations I carry into conversations,” Baig says.
I can relate to that on so many levels, especially in relation to my own parents. I sometimes forget that they are multifaceted humans with both joyful and oppressive experiences themselves. Our marginalization doesn’t exempt us from having our own misinformed assumptions of those around us. It’s that openness that pushes conversations about identity forward. “I wanted to honor both things: There’s a lot of love from immigrant parents and at the same time, some of these identities are pretty huge to wrap your head around,” Baig tells me.
In “Sort Of,” Sabi begins to truly feel close to the people around them once they and everyone else is going on their own transformative journeys, even if they don’t look exactly like theirs. The series ends with a major decision that Sabi had been putting off throughout the three seasons. It involves having faith in the unknown, in oneself, and in others all at once. And it’s one that requires changing their relationship with fear, which is a pretty universal struggle. And Sabi shows us, in our final moments with them this season, that when we’re no longer controlled by fear, we can allow the world in.