You may not have heard of Nora Lum, but you’ve probably heard of Awkwafina. After a series of supporting roles in high-profile films like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians, Awkwafina recently became the first Asian American woman to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress for her role in The Farewell—not bad for a girl from Queens who started out as a comedy rapper on YouTube. For much of her career, Awkwafina has hidden behind an exaggerated persona that’s rightly been the subject of discussions about cultural appropriation and the use of the “blaccent” by non-Black people. So it’s a relief to see her relax a little bit and show where she comes from on her new Comedy Central series, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens.
And who Awkwafina really is—at least, according to this show—is an indiscriminately horny, unemployed goofball whose passions in life are playing video games, smoking weed at 10 a.m., and hanging out with her grandma, played here by Orange Is The New Black’s Lori Tan Chinn. The Nora of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens is a grown-up kid who can’t take anything seriously, and who retreats into silly faces and voices when things get a little too real. It takes her weeks to scrape up enough money to get her car back after she gets towed while sleeping in it, and cashing the check to get the money she needs to pick up the car turns into a days-long ordeal when she can’t remember her Social Security number. In short, she’s a lovable loser in the Broad City mold who lives at home with her Chinese family in outer-borough New York.
Awkwafina’s greatest strength as an actor is in physical comedy. Her funniest moments in Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens see her using her whole body to create a heightened sense of comedic reality that evokes the great silent-movie masters. Even when the show’s comedy relies more on its scripts—written by Awkwafina, Family Guy’s Teresa Hsiao, and Portlandia’s Karey Dornetto—Awkwafina’s highly expressive face is still the star of every scene. So perhaps it’s of a piece that the show is at its best when it stays small, losing its specific point of view when it ventures into generic tech-industry satire later in the season. It’s much more fun to hang out at home with Nora, Grandma, and Dad (BD Wong), or to follow Nora as she fumbles her way through odd jobs, like her brief stint on a site called 420camchicks.com and her Adderall-infused quest to help a family friend sell a condemned building haunted by “Cantonese ghosts.”
Adding to the appeal of the show’s domestic humor is Chinn’s scene-stealing turn as Grandma, a maternal but fun-loving woman with a penchant for novelty T-shirts (one reads, “Crazy Not-So-Rich Asian”) and no fucks left to give. Grandma’s status as ringleader of a gang of elderly Chinese women provides some of the show’s biggest laughs—especially in the second episode, when they face off with a similar clique of Korean ladies at a casino food court. Next to Chinn, Awkwafina plays it straight, a dynamic that becomes even more fun when Nora’s cousin, a neurotic social climber played by Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang, is added to the mix. Yang is consistently hilarious on Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, and the dynamic between him, Chinn, and Awkwafina is a potent comedic force.
In contrast to these big personalities, Wong gives a quieter, more affecting performance as Nora’s widower dad, whose awkward attempts to get back onto the dating scene receive significant screen time in the second half of the season. There’s a sweetness to the way Wong’s character supports his daughter even when he’s exasperated with her, as well as in the way Grandma dotes on her special girl. The show wisely returns to this loving family at the end of every episode, giving Nora’s adventures a believable emotional anchor. Outside of the house, the tone varies with each episode, ranging from a crude episode-length vagina joke to two old friends reconnecting on the Chinatown bus to Atlantic City.
Aside from a stand-alone K-drama parody telling the story of how Grandma met Nora’s grandpa back in China, the season as a whole follows a continuous arc, with frequent diversions to hang out with guest stars that include Jaboukie Young-White, Chrissie Fit, Simu Liu, Ming-Na Wen, Celia Au, Deborah S. Craig, Makeda Declet, Bella Heathcote, Laverne Cox as the voice of God, and Awkwafina’s fellow rapper John “Dumbfoundead” Park. The cast is as diverse as Awkwafina’s home borough, and the show’s core ensemble is composed entirely of people of color, with white actors only appearing in minor roles. The show’s roster of directors, led by the likes of Natasha Lyonne, But I’m A Cheerleader’s Jamie Babbit, and directing team The Daniels of Swiss Army Man fame, thinks outside of the white-guy box as well. So while Nora From Queens definitely bears the mark of the quirky Comedy Central anti-heroines who came before her, at its core the show nails two of the most important things for a successful sitcom: a distinct point of view and genuine heart.