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Bilal Baig, left, with Grace Lynn Kung, is the star of the Peabody Award-winning Sort Of on CBC.Keri Anderson/CBC

Anyone expecting a big Bollywood-style blowout at the start of the second season of Sort Of should have known better. The critically acclaimed Canadian show co-written by and starring Bilal Baig as Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid millennial of Pakistani heritage, is too sublime to fit into any stereotypes – even when it comes to narrative arcs.

Everything that was noteworthy about the CBC series – which won a Peabody Award, three Canadian Screen Awards and was scooped up by HBO Max – is still as fresh in the second. The actors bring their charm and quirks to their characters: Baig’s sassy Sabi, Amanda Cordner’s mile-a-minute talking 7ven, Ellora Patnaik’s patient Raffo, and Grace Lynn Kung’s acerbic Bessy. The writing is smart and fast-paced, with enough room for the characters to breathe and develop. But what makes Sort Of stand out is how the concept of family – both given and chosen – serves as a through line. The dysfunctional yet sustaining relationships make for an immensely bingeable watch, which can offer you life lessons in a non-judgmental way – only if you, like, want the advice, as Sabi would say in their dry cadence with the slightest of an eyeroll.

The first season introduced us to Sabi’s world. Perpetually strapped for cash, they work two part-time jobs – as a bartender at a queer bar and as a nanny. When Sabi’s mother, Raffo (Ellora Patnaik), shows up to their home unannounced one day, hands laden with yogurt containers filled with rice and chicken jalfrezi, she sees – truly sees – Sabi in their full fabulousness: makeup, hair and nails done, wearing a black dress and tights accessorized with a denim coat. Even as Raffo is coming to terms with Sabi’s identity, she’s scared of Sabi’s father, Imran, finding out their truth – which he does, from Sabi’s cousin Kareem (Kareem Vaude).

One could be forgiven, then, for expecting the worst after the first season’s cliffhanger left an impending sense of doom: Imran is returning to Toronto. Sabi references an iconic line from the famous Bollywood film Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge (1995), saying they were “jeeing their zindagi” – a delightful Urdu-English phrase meaning “living their life.” That film featured the gravelly voiced actor Amrish Puri playing a stern father who constantly thunders and glares at his daughter Simran, setting the stage for Sabi’s father to lay down the law.

What ends up happening in the second season is vastly more complex, nuanced and, at the same time mundane – which is the genius of Sort Of. There isn’t a big showdown. Instead, just like any other family, the Mehboobs deliver tiny doses of hurt to each other as they try to navigate their relationships through silences and loaded language.

One of the revelations of the first season was Sabi’s relationship with their mother. Raffo does not immediately accept her child’s new identity. But rather than targeting Sabi’s gender expression, she criticizes their job as a nanny because she expects better, or tells Sabi to change outfits from risqué to something more sophisticated. But, ultimately, she often chooses tenderness over judgment. This offers a far more textured portrait of an immigrant mother who is trying to figure out her own sense of self, as well as that of her child, than one usually sees in popular culture.

Given that stories featuring trans characters usually focus on their pain and trauma, it was also refreshing to see just how tight Sabi’s circle is. Raffo and Sabi’s sister Aqsa (Supinder Wraich) practise a form of tough love. As much as Aqsa will cover for Sabi, she also expects them to pay their share of the rent. The family dynamics in the Mehboob family play out like any other, including sibling rivalry.

The second season of Sort Of explores these familial bonds – and other forms of love – even further. Imran isn’t the thundering kind, but still looks to fix Sabi. His first reaction is to employ Sabi as an electrician, the trade that they went to school for. Sabi acquiesces but then shows up without changing a single thing about their appearance, making for some awkward moments between the two.

Meanwhile, it turns out that there is a chasm between the parents as well, which they need to negotiate. The dynamic between Raffo and Imran and their two children is wonderfully nuanced, showing us the added layers of tensions playing out in immigrant families.

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Bilal Baig (as Sabi), a gender-fluid millenial.Keri Anderson/CBC

Each Mehboob family member is supportive and selfish in their own ways; sometimes they ignore slights, other times they snipe at each other.

As much as the term “authentic self” is overused, in this case it makes perfect sense to invoke. Sort Of is relatable because the show is actually presenting familiar stories – of dysfunctional families and friendships, of love and heartbreak, of small successes and huge failures. While some situations may seem unfamiliar to some segments of viewers, it’s all quite normal and human – which is the point.

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