Canadian sitcom more than transcends its woke ideology
The Canadian situation comedy Sort Of, now airing on HBO Max, has had a surprisingly subdued release since its big premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival back in September. From the same network that brought us Kim’s Convenience, Sort Of has an aggressively woke premise. It stars Bilal Baig, also the show’s creator, in the leading role as the non-binary Pakistani-Canadian millennial Sabi currently employed as a nanny in a mixed-race professional family. There’s a lot of hip lingo, and discussion of it. Although, amusingly enough, the most distinctive such example is “misogynist” which the show ends up using a little overbroadly.
Revelations about the behind-the-scenes drama which the cancellation of Kim’s Convenience despite the show’s popularity and ratings did not make me optimistic about Sort Of. So I was rather surprised when upon actually seeing the show I found the entire analogy to be rather unreasonable. And possibly racist. But that’s OK, because white people making racist assumptions aren’t evil. They’re just kind of clueless and dumb, like everyone else.
In the context of the show, this refers, principally, to Paul, played by Gray Powell. He’s a psychiatrist, and one of Sabi’s employers. His introduction doesn’t flatter him, with Paul awkwardly trying to explain that the family has non-bigoted reasons for wanting to fire Sabi. And in a flourish that becomes their hallmark throughout the series, Bilal Baig just gives this weird awkward look, as if they aren’t sure whether to be more upset about the family firing him or using language to try and uselessly minimize its white guilt. There’s a very nice, subtle distinction being made throughout Sort Of distinguishing real-life problems from societal problems, which is very much the opposite of how the media portrays the woke ideology that it uses as a selling point.
Woke messaging is bad not because non-majority viewpoints are bad, but because the adjective “non-majority” does all the heavy lifting rather than “viewpoints”. Petty cultural signifiers matter more than what the show’s actually about. This is why I didn’t like Kim’s Convenience, for all its barrier breaking. The conflict was artificial, simplistic, and just not very funny.
Contrast that to Sort Of, whose first episode throws Sabi into multiple moral conflicts with no real right or wrong answers. Nanny isn’t really a long-term career choice. Both their best friend 7ven, played by Amanda Cordner, and their traditional Pakistani mother Raffo, played by Ellora Patnaik, attack Sabi on this front. It’s fascinating to see the exact same argument presented for two completely different reasons by two completely different people being forced to clash against Sabi’s own reluctance to leave Canada because of a a crisis situation I don’t want to spoil.
This is because Sort Of thrives on the element of surprise, with random twists coming out of nowhere so they only really hit a few seconds after your brain has had time to process them. My favorite one was the pregnant man joke. It’s a style of humor that’s also almost perfectly complimentary to Bilal Baig’s deadpan style. They have great reaction shots, always with varying lengths of pauses in between. This is a great metaphor for the cautiousness of their character. It almost feels like they’re pausing for the laugh track–despite Sort Of very much not being a laugh-track kind of situation comedy.
There’s far more situation than comedy, which really plays to the show’s strengths. Sort of compresses a whole lot of plot into eight very reasonably-sized episodes. The story’s genuinely engaging, yet also distinctly millennial in that the characters use humor as a coping mechanism for very real fear, struggling to renegotiate personal boundaries in the midst of a whole lot of social turmoil. Beyond just being smart, well-written, and funny, Sort Of is also incredibly innovative just in terms of what it does with the situation comedy format, making for a viewing experience that’s about as fluid as the characters’ gender identities. Sort Of is a legitimately great show. You should watch it.