Not even three years after one of the unlikeliest shows to succeed made its debut, Bilal Baig is hanging up their cowboy boots.
Now those boots (blue suede, snatched up from a vintage store somewhere in Germany) may not have been featured directly in the tragicomedy Sort Of that Baig both wrote and starred in. But as they walk them through CBC’s downtown Toronto office for an interview, it’s hard to separate any part of Baig with their onscreen character, Sabi Mehboob.
Both are mid-twenties Torontonians, and both are slightly soft spoken but with perfect comedic timing. Both have a somewhat difficult, somewhat distant relationship with their parents; both are non-conforming. And now that Baig has decided to end that show — one of the only ones out there to centre the story of a gender non-binary person — there’s an uncertainty hanging around both.
While Baig knows exactly how Sabi’s story will end when Sort Of‘s finale eventually airs, to them, the uncertainty lies more in how the landscape will change in the show’s wake.
“Part of what I’m curious about is: what happens after?” Baig said. “What are the shows that get made? Who gets to be heard?”
Sort Of — which follows Sabi’s attempts to juggle a floundering nanny career with a difficult love life and relationship with a family that struggles to accept them — was not the first to feature non-binary stories.
Everything from Our Flag Means Death, to Sex Education, Star Trek: Discovery and Grey’s Anatomy have featured non-binary characters. And others, like Umbrella Academy and Joy Ride, saw actors all but confirm their characters’ hinted identity in subsequent interviews.
Many of those characters were introduced around the same time as Sort Of‘s first season. It was, according to Baig, a reflection of the widening visibility of people on different points of the gender spectrum, and proof of what they can accomplish when given the opportunity.
“So much can be achieved if trans people are given the respect and dignity that they deserve,” they said. “I want that for all of us, forever. All the time.”
But the likelihood those desires will be realized is, like so much else in Baig’s life, uncertain. While other series have featured non-binary characters, few if any centred them as protagonists like Sort Of did.
Those that attempted to include them still featured pushback: according to creator Chris Nee, the Emmy nominated preschool series Ridley Jones, which included an episode where a character came out as non-binary, was given virtually no promotion by Netflix. The show was cancelled soon after.
And the Alanis Morissette-inspired musical Jagged Little Pill only just re-debuted its show-stopping character Jo as non-binary for the production’s Canadian tour. Its producers previously issued an apology for removing lines signalling that character as non-binary, which “discounted and dismissed what people saw and felt in this character’s journey.”
“I just kind of want to be done with conversations around ‘We need chances,’ ” Baig said. Because while it’s a question and situation they’ve been presented with countless times over the course of their career, it’s one external to the performance of non-binary people themselves.
“I feel like we’ve proven ourselves over and over again, [proven] that we can totally tell stories.”
If there’s one legacy that Sort Of leaves, Baig hopes that’s it. While pulled from their own challenging experiences growing up and growing into their identity, there was an emphasis on universal appeal and compassion — both on screen, and behind the camera.
Baig said they grew alongside their character as they stumbled around trying to find themselves in the three seasons put to screen. The decision to end that relationship and take the show off the air was a difficult one, especially as it leaves a vacuum, hopefully to be filled by similar productions in the future.
But along with the exhaustion that came from being someone more inclined to create on the other side of the lens, Baig says they grew “definitely faster than Sabi.” And while the show often focused on the honest depiction of someone who didn’t know themselves hurting those around them, Baig’s real-life focus shifted a long time ago.
More than the storylines, they say their hope for legacy lies in the success that comes when opportunities and support are given.
“I just hope that more chances are taken, and when those chances are taken, people are actually wondering, ‘Well, how can we support this person to do their jobs, their job to the best of their ability,’ ” they said.
“Hopefully we can be an example … it’s so basic, but if you can treat people well it gets quality, that feeling gets embedded in the project.”
Sort Of‘s final season begins Friday, Nov. 17. Two episodes will air weekly on CBC Gem, with the series finale to broadcast Friday, Dec. 8.