Rapper/comedian turned actress Awkwafina has had quite the rise to fame. Starting from relative obscurity on YouTube in 2013, the star gained a following that eventually saw her transition away from her day job towards a career focused on entertainment. She’d produce an album’s worth of rap hits, create some comedic videos to accompany them, and even start a podcast before getting a Hollywood break in the 2016 release Neighbors 2.
Even without all of that, her resume is impressive. Just last year, she starred in both Jumanji: The Next Level and The Farewell. The latter got her a Golden Globe win for best actress (the first Asian-American woman to do so). She clearly has talent and chops to spare in a wide range of genres, so it makes sense why Comedy Central approached her to headline a solo show.
Sadly, that talent doesn’t always transition over to a television series. Awakwafina is Nora from Queens has a lot of potential, but can’t help but feel a bit awkward and stilted in some of its episodes.
Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (Season One)
Premiere Date: January 22, 2020 (Comedy Central)
If it wasn’t evident from the title, Awakwafina is Nora from Queens is something of an autobiographical show. Based loosely on her own life in Queens, this show centers on a fictionalized version of Awkwafina living with her grandmother and father in a dingy house in New York City. A lot of these elements are ripped straight from her own life and the idea is clearly to mock herself so that others can’t. It’s not the most original of setups around, but it’s definitely a nice way to play into the comedic talents Awkwafina has.
The pilot episode is the weakest of the bunch. Clearly made before a final plan was agreed on, it quickly shuffles through main characters and plot points to establish an identity for this show. Nora (Awkwafina) is a late 20-something living at home and looking for meaning in her life. After moving out of her house and failing at a job, she cries to her friend about lacking purpose and wishes she could be successful like her. This eventually results in her participating in a cam-show and some wacky hi-jinks ensue.
Trying to figure out a plotline for Nora from Queens would be futile. This isn’t a serialized show in the typical sitcom mold. This is more like Seinfeld or even Louie in that Nora is thrust into random situations and we’re just along to see how she reacts. Certain elements will carry over from episode to episode (the final two of which build on from a couple of others to form their own mini-arc), but it’s almost a sketch comedy show in execution.
While likely the best way to showcase the different talents Awkwafina has, it doesn’t always have the strongest writing. The comedy here seems like it adopted an “anything goes” approach, so you’ll get jokes that feel entirely random or characters making decisions that don’t necessarily agree with their personalities. It can be a little frustrating to see Nora go from her strong persona to a wimpy one within the same scene, though the idea is to bring out the range Awkwafina has.
It almost seems like Nora isn’t meant to be the main character. Despite being the headliner, her grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn) is absolutely the breakout star here. Previously featured on Orange is the New Black, Chinn is pretty reminiscent of Sophia from The Golden Girls, just with some Asian flair. She is a no-nonsense, straight-talking woman that will tell you your shit stinks regardless of whether or not you want to hear it.
She also gets the best plotlines of anyone in the show. The second episode sees Nora take a trip to Atlantic City with her grandmother in an effort to cut loose for a little bit. While there, grandma’s oxymoronic racist tendencies come out as she picks a fight with some Korean women at the buffet. They start a beef over not being able to plug their tablets into an outlet for charging so they can watch Korean dramas all day.
Later in the season, Nora’s grandmother explains how she met her husband by recounting her life as a Korean drama. It’s complete with lavish title cards, obscenely beautiful actors, and melodrama. You can tell this is a labor of love as the show doesn’t ridicule these elements, but relishes the fact that Asian media can be so sappy and romantic.
Nora’s father, Wally (BD Wong), even gets time to shine in his own specific episode. On the anniversary of his wife’s death, Wally seeks out a counseling group to help him cope with being single. It is a surprisingly touching look at loss and loneliness in a show that typically goes for gross-out humor. Just a few episodes later, Wally is accidentally posting a dick pic online in an effort to flirt with someone he met at the group. It is real slice of life stuff turned up to an extreme degree.
This is all fine in isolation, but the strong focus on these characters makes everyone else feel underdeveloped. Nora’s cousin, Edmund (Bowen Yang), is a natural foil for her, but really only appears when the plot dictates it. He’s a Silicon Valley tech type that is more successful than Nora but still manages to screw things up in the end. His plan unfolds over the course of the season and eventually leads the duo to the finale, but he doesn’t serve much purpose apart from that.
Some of Nora’s older friends suffer a similar fate. The pilot episode introduces Ted and Chanise, but they only feature for a scant few scenes -Ted does reappear in a later episode for a similar purpose-. Melanie (Chrissie Fit) is in the second and sixth episodes and basically exists to showcase a different side to Nora. These characters aren’t given the best use except to play off of Awkwafina, which is where some of the better comedic elements come from.
When Awkwafina is alone, the show feels pretty basic. When she’s riffing off of others, her true talent comes to light. She’s clearly better as a team player instead of the central focus. Any moment with Nora and her grandmother is gold. Scenes with other actors may not be as strong, but they thrive more than when Awkwafina is left to her own devices.
That’s really the oddest thing here. Nora from Queens has all the right cast and tons of talent behind it, but the show is never quite sure what it should aim for. Is this a fictional documentary of Awkwafina’s life, or a sketch comedy show that features increasingly absurd plot points that boils over into a funny conclusion? Does the show want a centralized main character or an ensemble cast?
You’re likely to find a ton of things to enjoy about Nora from Queens, but it just needs a bit more refining before it can become truly great. I guess that is to be expected of any new show. Thankfully, Comedy Central has already greenlit a season two, so we won’t have to worry about this premise withering away.