Since underground hip-hop and comedy star Awkwafina found the mainstream spotlight with breakout film roles in Ocean’s 8 and Crazy, Rich Asians, she hasn’t let go. The actress and rapper earned well-deserved raves and a Golden Globe for Best Actress in a Musical or Comedy for her performance leading the dynamic indie feature The Farewell, and now brings her whirlwind comic energy to series television playing the slacker lead in Comedy Central’s single-camera sitcom Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (★★★☆☆).
Awkwafina actually is a Nora from Queens — born Nora Lum, but playing “Nora Lin” on the show. The series, co-created by Awkwafina and Fresh Off the Boat and American Dad! writer-producer Teresa Hsiao, allows ample room for its star to expand on her hyper-verbal public persona with autobiographical detail. Like Awkwafina, Nora on the show is half-Chinese, half-Korean, was raised by her single dad Wally (BD Wong), and considers her Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) to be her best friend. Nora is also a 27-year old stay-at-home, video-gaming slob with hoarder tendencies, facts which might or might not diverge from Awkwafina’s pre-stardom reality, but feel authentic in the context of Wally and Grandma’s mild frustration that Nora hasn’t yet set a true course for her adult life.
In episode one (of the five that Comedy Central gave critics to preview), dad Wally nonchalantly compares Nora’s stalled liftoff to her cousin Edmund’s skyrocketing career in tech: “He just bought an apartment complex.” As the oft-mentioned specter of all the 21st-century success the world promises Nora — but that she has no idea how to achieve — Cousin Edmund is a sharply effective device both in the abstract and in person, played with hilariously condescending calm by Saturday Night Live‘s Bowen Yang. One in a cast of performers who bring real New York, queer-friendly flavor to the show (including Laverne Cox as the voice of God), Yang makes a fine comic foil for Awkwafina, and there isn’t enough of him in the series’ first few episodes.
Focusing entirely on Nora’s adventures in making some dough and finding her own apartment, episodes one and two don’t advance ‘B’ or ‘C’ plots, or meaningful development of the other characters. Wally, Grandma, Edmund, and Nora’s friends and foes comment on her story, interact, assist, or impede her progress, and generally spread that ha-ha funny, Big Apple flavor around the background, while Nora stumbles towards finding herself. She takes on a variety of gigs from rideshare driver to online cam girl, with the writing and direction leaving Awkwafina plenty of leeway to riff and roll through setups, punchlines, and adlibs. A stoner Lucy sans Ethel, Nora gives all the wacky we can take, until these single-track scripts finally start to show compelling interest in characters other than her — which, in turn, makes her more interesting too.
In fact, the show and star really hit their stride in episode three, when Nora turns her good-humored intensity towards doing everything she can to emulate her new boss, realtor Nancy Hong (Deborah S. Craig). Dead-set on selling the handful of unsellable properties in her portfolio, Nancy seems somehow both a mess and completely in control, a perfectly oddball mentor to really jumpstart Nora’s journey — as well as inspire some amazingly bad copycat hair choices. This show’s hair and wig team stays busy, especially in episode four, where Nora picks up another, equally oddball mentor in a focus group scam artist played by comedian Michelle Buteau. Nora also picks up a quick girl-on-girl kiss, not that the show ever makes any big deal of the character’s casually mentioned bisexuality.
Nora from Queens does finally make a big deal about exploring the lives of Nora’s family members in a strong episode five, well-acted by Wong, as Wally confronts his loneliness and the sense of guilt he feels for his daughter’s arrested development. The dramatic turn steers Wally into a fruitful comic subplot, joining a support group for single parents, where he’s not the only one who’s too ashamed to admit that his problem child is actually a twenty-something grownup.
That growing up is hard to do isn’t the most original hook to hang a show on, but Awkwafina is Nora from Queens derives its spark of originality from the singular voice and delivery of its star, and from a quirky depiction of her real-life experience. Although the series takes half of its first season to add momentum to the stories of those around her, we can hope that from this promising juncture the latter half of the season will play out Nora’s adventures and family foibles in a way that lends dimension to every aspect of her crazy world.
Awkwafina is Nora from Queens premieres Thursday, Jan. 22, at 10:30 p.m. on Comedy Central. It airs at 10:30 p.m. weekly on Thursdays. Visit www.comedycentral.com.
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