September 26, 2023

A nanny by day and bartender by night, Sabi is the wonderfully funny deadpan millennial at the center of the new HBO Max comedy series “Sort Of.” The child of Pakistani immigrants in Toronto, Sabi is gender fluid, uses they/them pronouns and dresses femme. Sweet but tart, their story is both highly personal and universal, about finding your place in the world while everyone else around you is also struggling to do the same.

Created by the Canadian duo of Bilal Baig (who stars as Sabi) and Fab Filippo, the eight-episode season arrives full-formed and its singular confidence and full-blooded sense of fun reminded me of another delightful international comedy that premiered on HBO Max earlier this year called “Starstruck,” also about a millennial in London who is also a part-time nanny.

“Sort Of” distinguishes itself with the kind of winning sensibility that creates equal room for one-liners and heartfelt, sometime roiling emotions, most of which Sabi keeps bottled up. Or as they wryly explain one night while tending bar: “I put my difficult feelings in a special little box in my brain and I close it up nice and tight and I don’t open it ever and then I talk about stupid stuff.”

When Sabi’s best friend 7ven (played by a hilarious Amanda Cordner) gets the opportunity of a lifetime to move to Berlin, she convinces Sabi to come along. And why not? There’s little keeping them rooted in place except for those dead-end part time jobs and a crappy boyfriend who says things like, “I feel like you don’t see me.”

But plans for Berlin get scuttled faster than you can say guten tag after the mother of the children Sabi looks after lands in the hospital after a cycling accident leaves her in coma. Suddenly, those two preteens in Sabi’s care need some extra help, as does their floundering father, Paul (Gray Powell). Loyal perhaps to a fault, Sabi swallows those visions of a new life and decides to stay put — not that 7ven is happy about it, prompting this exchange:

7ven: “I lined up a dream apartment in the queer dreamland we always dreamed of queering in and you took a dump on that dream!”

Sabit: “Yeah, well my waking life kind of dream-blocked me.”

Sabi’s intense, authentically caring but difficult relationships with Paul as well as Sabi’s mother — equally strained but for different reasons — are the show’s heart and soul. Sabi is protective of their two young charges (played by the wonderfully teen angsty Kaya Kanashiro, and the more unflappably reclusive Aden Bedard) and maybe Sabi oversteps sometimes. Or maybe Sabi just sees a void that demands to be filled, left by a mother who may never wake up and a sometimes jerky father who is barely keeping it together. Early on, before everything goes to hell, Paul clumsily blurts out: “You’re so real. Thank you for being so real. I’m glad our kids have been exposed to you.” Sabi stares back, stunned by the absurdity of this back-patting comment. “I’m glad I exposed myself to them,” Sabi replies flatly. It’s a perfect response that undercuts all the “but the children” type of hysteria and ridiculousness that can hover in the shadows whenever queer people work with children. “Sort Of” has no time or interest in any of that nonsense.

What the show does want to do is explore how families are more complicated than the accepting/rejecting binary. Sabi is forever dodging calls from mom (played by the terrific Ellora Patnaik, who brings real warmth to the role) because the thought of explaining their gender fluidity to her is too daunting. But when the trans of it all comes out, it’s her classism that burns hottest: She’s thunderstruck to learn Sabi is a nanny — a servant, in her flabbergasted words. Sabi just sighs deeply and keeps it moving.

Sarcasm is Sabi’s lingua franca: “I’m gonna steal the baby they hope will give them purpose and sell it on the black market,” Sabi says, complaining about their ex and catching someone overhearing this and shaking their head “no” reassuringly. These quips are what make the character’s heartbreak so humorous, but it’s also a protective reflex.

Letting people in and allowing them to see your vulnerability is risky, but bit by bit Sabi opens up when it matters most. There are no tidy resolutions here, which gives the show an obvious opening for a second season (fingers crossed) but it also just feels true to life.