In a recent interview with this newspaper, Peter Mansbridge was unusually blunt but not entirely unkind about CBC. He said, “I think the country absolutely needs the CBC. Do they need the CBC they’ve got right now? Probably not. They need it to be better.”
Well, yes. And, better in many ways. The National gets shockingly low ratings. In part, that’s because there are few strong lead-in shows in prime time. CTV and Global own the top-10 list of most-watched shows in Canada, week after week. Whatever gloss and prestige CBC’s schedule had, is now gone. Gone are Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek, Baroness von Sketch Show and Frankie Drake Mysteries. It’s not just that there’s a yawning gap in the schedule. Dramas about feuding families and slight comedies about oddball characters, which we’ve seen recently, aren’t cutting it.
Sort Of (starts Tuesday, CBC, 9 p.m., two consecutive episodes) is the way forward.
A genuinely original new series (it will also stream later on HBO Max in the U.S.), Sort Of is sort-of bonkers and certainly outright brilliant at times. From creators Bilal Baig (a Toronto queer, trans-feminine playwright) and Fab Filippo (Save Me), it’s funny, soapy, satiric and tender. It’s about Sabi (Baig) who works as a nanny to a very bourgeois, downtown-Toronto family and as a bartender. The youngest in a large Pakistani family, Sabi is mortified that their mom doesn’t yet realize they are now they, and mystified that their sometimes-gay boyfriend sometimes dates beautiful women. Sabi’s best friend, artist 7ven (Amanda Cordner), wants to take Sabi to Berlin, the “queerest place in the galaxy.” But Sabi’s life gets complicated, as that bourgeois family has secrets and, well, everything is in transition. Snappily sardonic, there’s a rare kind of warmth, too, and Bilal Baig has a rare type of charisma.
So far, while the series has been on CBC Gem, there’s been glowing attention to the fact that CBC has a series with a queer, brown, gender-fluid star at its core. But that’s not the sum and total of it. What makes it truly special is the energy, vitality and the fact that the tone is beautifully judged. The series is a very urban contemporary comedy, a wry portrait of the power plays in romantic relationships – of all types – and amounts to a humane, messy tale of sexual and artistic self-discovery.
If that sounds serious-minded, this show isn’t serious in that formularized way. There’s barely a scene that isn’t hilarious, packed with spiky dialogue and hyper-aware sarcasm attuned to the large and small comedies that are part and parcel of urban existence now. It it emphatically and unapologetically Toronto-set and made with the kind of flair that reminds us how truly exotic, inclusive and unique the city is.
The performances here are uniformly strong, with Baig and Gray Powell (as Paul, the worried father to the kids Sabi takes care of) making a particularly good pairing as they bond, spar and become closer than either could ever expect. Supinder Wraich (who also appeared in one of CBC’s more imaginative series Crawford) is excellent as Sabi’s sister Aqsa, the one navigating middle-class life and trying to be a benign connection and referee between Sabi and their mom.
Sort Of has the feel and tone of something fresh from HBO or FX, one of those shows that are telling us where we are, in the early days of capturing a generation’s non-binary, probing and fraught approach to sexual relationships. And yet utterly Canadian in its sense of acceptance and very Canadian in its sense of humour.
Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo have pulled off something truly remarkable here. The series isn’t activism of any kind. There’s a relaxed vibe that is palpable in both the script and the performances; the plot is deeply funny and unhurried, and the conversations between characters are sublimely natural.
Earlier this year, CBC introduced Pretty Hard Cases, a cop show that isn’t predictable or traditional, and amounted to way more than the wacky cop show CBC TV seemed to be promoting. From the get-go, it was very entertaining, odd and a fascinating hybrid of cop show, comedy and socially aware big-city drama.
There hasn’t been anything like it (it returns soon, one hopes) and, anomalous as it is, the series makes a lot of cop-show content seem irritatingly out of touch. Now CBC TV closes out the year with another oddity, one that is casually exhilarating in its charm and smarts. That’s the way forward, with beautifully unselfconscious inventiveness.
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