'Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens': TV Review

A strong vehicle for a versatile talent.
1/22/2020

After stealing scenes in 'Crazy Rich Asians' and garnering awards buzz in 'The Farewell,' Awkwafina gets a semi-autobiographical Comedy Central series.

The career path that Awkwafina has been on for the past decade isn't unprecedented, but it illustrates a certain dissolving of media boundaries.

It's almost a Will Smith trajectory tossed in the blender, as Awkwafina has gone from YouTube-fueled rapper to blockbuster scene-stealer in Crazy Rich Asians to Oscar-worthy indie film lead in The Farewell to sitcom star. So while there's an outdated perspective on the celebrity journey that might view Comedy Central's Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens as a step backward — "Basic cable? Not even HBO?" — the fast-moving, energetic half-hour represents another promising, progressive step on a zig-zagging road to well-deserved ubiquity.

As the title of the sitcom accurately reflects, Awkwafina was born Nora Lum and grew up in Queens, and the comedy, created by Awkwafina with Teresa Hsiao co-writing the pilot, captures certain aspects of her biography. As depicted here, Nora is 27 and living with her father (BD Wong) and paternal grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn) in the shadow of her more ambitious cousin (Bowen Yang, extending his Saturday Night Live breakthrough). It's unclear if this version of Nora shares Awkwafina's exact long-term ambitions, because she's more dedicated to smoking up, clocking in as an overenthusiastic ride-share driver and, when privacy allows, masturbating. Nora would probably get along well with the ladies of Broad City, which is a good thing since Comedy Central's lineup is missing Abbi and Ilana something awful.

The tone of Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens will be familiar to anybody who knows her songs like "NYC Bitche$," "Yellow Ranger" and the notorious "My Vag." It's a tongue-in-cheek lampooning of her borough and its changing demographics, a swaggering overshare about her libido and, probably most importantly, a wonderfully specific celebration of her identity.

Like Awkwafina, Nora is Chinese-American on her father's side and Korean on the side of her late mother, and that blending plays out through the series, whether it's stretches of dialogue in Mandarin, her grandmother pulling job listings off the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo or, most literally, a Chinatown bus trip to Atlantic City that becomes an international skirmish over power plugs at a dingy food court.

Awkwafina contains multitudes, and Nora From Queens gets a kick out of putting the main character, already grappling with her place in the world, in situations that give her the opportunity to playact. Maybe Saturday Night Live didn't capture her versatility when she hosted, but Awkwafina shines here in episodic plotlines that find her scamming her way into marketing research focus groups with guest star Michelle Buteau or hopped up on expired Adderall and trying to emulate a successful real estate agent. Her exaggerated enthusiasm is infectious, and Akwafina's embracing of her nerdiness is as much a part of her identity here as her ethnic roots — whether it's obsessing over an online game featuring farmers and mer-men or recounting the Magic: The Gathering tournament win that represents her greatest personal triumph.

Boasting Broad City veteran Lucia Aniello among its early directors, Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens could stand to take a few more aesthetic risks, though that's something that even Broad City grew into. The series may open with a fantasy featuring Nora ascending to heaven and having to defend her lack of ambition to God, but it's mostly a familiar boots-on-the-ground New York City look.

The most experimentation comes in tone, where Nora From Queens is clever to take advantage of the fact that Awkwafina's outsized comic chops are matched, as viewers of The Farewell know, by her ability to convey subtle emotional shifts. It's here that the show also benefits tremendously from Wong and Chinn, two actors more than capable of dramatic beats when they aren't having a blast with the show's silly comedy. The generosity that gives Wong's and Chinn's characters several effective stand-alone storylines in the five episodes sent to critics extends to a stable of guest stars like Buteau, Natasha Lyonne, Jaboukie Young-White and Chris Gethard, any of whom would be welcome returning presences as the show expands its world.

Given this extremely likable and frequently funny starting point, the only thing that could keep Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens from getting that opportunity over four or five seasons (or more) is Awkwafina's steady push toward world domination.

Cast: Awkwafina, BD Wong, Lori Tan Chinn
Creator: Awkwafina
Premieres: Wednesday, Jan. 22, 10:30 p.m. ET/PT (Comedy Central)