How HBO Max boarded CBC’s buzzy comedy Sort Of

The series' co-creators and executive producer discuss the making of the show and its global interest ahead of its premiere on CBC Gem.

Building on months of global market interest and sales, Sort Of is finally making its streaming debut in Canada.

Co-created by Bilal Baig and Fab Filippo (Save Me), the 8 x 30-minute comedy follows the trials and tribulations of Sabi Mehboob, a gender-fluid millennial played by Baig, who finds themselves at a crossroads when they must choose between moving to Berlin or staying to care for the kids they nanny for after a life-altering accident. Baig and Filippo both served as writers on the series, while Filippo also directed the majority of the episodes.

The series is produced by Sienna Films and co-commissioned by CBC and HBO Max. It premieres on streaming service CBC Gem tomorrow (Oct. 5) ahead of its broadcast premiere on Nov. 9. A release date on HBO Max has not been announced, but it is expected to land on the streamer this fall.

Executive producer Jennifer Kawaja tells Playback Daily HBO Max came on board as a co-commissioner before Sort Of went into production.

Sienna Films had financed a sizzle reel to help sell the concept to potential buyers, which led CBC to come on board and finance a writer’s room to further develop it. Kawaja also brought the sizzle to Robb Rothman of the U.S. agency Rothman Brecher Ehrich Livingston to shop it around to potential partners to finance alongside CBC. The sizzle attracted the attention of HBO Max, who came on as a co-commissioner after seeing the developed scripts.

Kawaja adds that Sienna Films’ parent company Sphere Media was an essential component to finance production for the series, as well as support from the Canada Media Fund.

The origin of the series goes back to 2018 when Baig and Filippo both appeared in the play Theory at the Tarragon Theatre in Toronto. Filippo was drawn to Baig, who uses they/them pronouns, as a performer and felt there was potential to build a series around them. Filippo was already in development on another project with Sienna Films, so he brought the idea to Kawaja and Julia Sereny.

While the initial spark for Sort Of was based around Baig’s star quality, the series isn’t autobiographical. The writers dedicated time to differentiate Baig from their onscreen role during development, but Baig says Sabi as a character really clicked during prep when it was established that they went to electrician school. “That changes everything in how they carry themselves and their body and how they relate to the rest of the world,” says Baig.

Writers on Sort Of include Jenn Engels (Transplant), Ian Iqbal Rashid (Touch of Pink) and Nelu Handa (Baroness Von Sketch Show), with Renuka Jeyapalan (Kim’s Convenience) also directing a number of episodes.

The team worked with Emmy-winning casting director Jon Comerford to fill the world of Sort Of with people of all genders and ethnicities. The working of casting the series included an open call to trans and non-binary actors that only required a two-sentence bio and a short video for them to talk about themselves in order to relieve some of the pressures and barriers that come with the production of self-tapes, according to Baig.

“What it did was it opened up a portal to these wonderful actors who we cast in the show in various different parts,” says Baig. “Trans actors playing trans characters and other trans actors playing characters whose gender is not defined or talked about or referred to in any way. There’s a real spectrum of gender that’s captured, not just transfeminine folks, but transmasculine, non-binary and gender fluid.”

Sort Of has already attracted a number of buyers ahead of its fall debut in North America, with worldwide sales rights holder Abacus Media Rights announcing sales to the U.K., Australia and France, as well as several territories in Europe through Nordic Entertainment Group. Kawaja says more deal announcements are on the way.

While the global sales interest has been a relief to the creative team and executive producers, Kawaja says she didn’t produce the series with international interest in mind. “I don’t think about that as a producer,” she says. “I think about, ‘do I love this?’ And then I hope that the world loves it. Sometimes that works out and in this case it did.”

While the premiere on CBC Gem will be the first time the series will be released to general audiences, it has already garnered attention on the festival circuit. The series had its world premiere at French TV market Séries Mania and North American premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival in late summer. The Banff World Media Festival also held a masterclass for Sort Of in June.

Filippo says the team is interested in seeing how the global audiences respond to the series and if reactions will vary between European or North American audiences, in terms of how certain jokes land or the impact of its storylines. “In the fabric of [the series] is an inherent intersectionality,” he says, adding that it will be informative for the writers if they have a chance to create season two, which has not been announced as of press time.