Early last year, I sat down to review Nora from Queens with modest expectations. Having found actor/rapper/comedian Awkwafina to be an immensely interesting talent, I was intrigued by what she could do with the sitcom formula. I walked away decently impressed, though hoping that a second season would refine certain lacking elements. Then COVID-19 happened and it seemed the world was going to end.
Comedy Central had announced plans for a second season well before the first even concluded, but then we heard nothing for over a year. I honestly had no clue what was even happening with Nora from Queens until I saw a commercial and read that Awkwafina threw a pitch at Citi Field during a Met’s game in promotion of season two. I guess it was happening after all.
Thankfully, the lack of promotion wasn’t because season two is a dud. On the contrary, Nora from Queens actually has gotten a bit better, even if it’s still somewhat formulaic.
Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (Season Two)
Premiere Date: August 18, 2021 (Comedy Central)
Much like last season, Nora from Queens is a mixture of a sketch comedy show and a serialized program that combines autobiographical elements of its main star, the foul-mouthed stoner Awkwafina. Focusing on fictionalized versions of herself and her family, what you’ll often see in an episode is a quirky setup followed by what feels like improvisational bits that then concludes in something outlandish or heartfelt. It’s a decent enough premise for a show that gets carried by the interplay between Awkwafina and her co-stars.
My biggest complaint from the first season was that the writers weren’t necessarily sure how they wanted to utilize the character of Nora. Awkwafina can certainly be funny on her own, but the show flip-flopped between having her take center stage and letting other people shine. Since the bits where she played off of other characters were far more enjoyable, I reckoned that maybe season two should make that the focus. That’s just what has happened with the first four episodes that Comedy Central has made available for review.
The first episode of this season begins right where the last left off. We catch with up Nora after she’s returned from China to see that her life has been going incredibly well. A successful businesswoman now, Nora pretty much has it all…except for someone to love. While walking down the street, she can’t help but look at a happy couple and feel a bit down about her situation. Then, as if decreed by the screenwriters themselves, her love interest Daniel (Jaboukie Young-White) comes back into her life.
It’s certainly a wild shift from last time, but you can likely tell from this description that not everything is right with this goofy premise. The two spend the night together having pillow fights and such before the next morning where Nora drops her hairdryer into the toilet and ends up paralyzed. That’s a shocker, but so is Daniel’s spur-of-the-moment proposal. Sadly, the voice of grandma (Lori Tan Chinn) begins to overpower everything and we cut back to reality: it was all a dream.
Yes, Nora is still something of a loser and mostly drifting through life. After having failed at her job in China, Nora moved back home and has almost reset herself from the first season. With the help of her father, Wally (BD Wong), she ends up landing a job at a CBD shop and is on her way to making some income…if only she could just show up on time for work.
This episode doesn’t deviate much from season one, but the biggest plus is that Nora isn’t left alone for the entire runtime. Almost as soon as she gets to work, she gets paired up with a new employee that highlights all of the flaws Nora has. Going by the name Jennifar, she gets a bit clingy to Nora before one-upping her at work and then landing her dream job after only a few hours of living in New York City. Talk about a character arc!
The B-plot for this episode focuses on grandma learning her health is far better than other women her age, so she starts to believe she is indestructible. This leads to an arm-wrestling club with her fellow seniors and it’s as hilarious as you might think. Chinn has a way of elevating the absurd premise into something special and her cantankerous style of delivery helps beautifully with that.
Chinn also gets time to showcase grandma’s softer side at the end of the episode. Nora comes home from work defeated by Jennifar’s explosive rise to fame and grandma gives her some touching words of encouragement. It almost feels like something out of a different show, but it sets up how Nora from Queens has matured a bit from last year.
I say matured, but the very next episode returns to the “adult” humor fairly quickly. Nora wakes up with a bizarre rash in the shape of Texas, so she heads to the walk-in clinic to get it checked out. With the nurse mistaking her disease and setting Nora up with an MRI, she reluctantly enters the scanner when an earthquake happens to strike. Much like the premise of Hot Tub Time Machine, Nora goes back in time to the year 2003 and realizes she has a second chance to stop herself from screwing up.
In the first season, this premise would be used to keep Nora alone, but not here. Since season two better understands how to utilize Akwafina, Nora runs into the receptionist from the clinic that tries to live life to the fullest. This leads to a series of increasingly ridiculous stakes where they travel around NYC attempting to figure out a way home. Think of it as a potty-mouthed version of Back to the Future and you’ll be pretty close.
My personal favorite episode so far happens to be the fourth one, “Edmund’s Back.” Much like how Nora bombed out of her international job, Edmund (Bowen Yang) has finally failed and he returns home a broken person. Yang was a perfect counterpart to Awkafina’s dry humor, so much so that their first exchange features the type of idiosyncratic humor I love. Edmund cries in an extremely flamboyant manner saying, “EEEE,” to which Nora responds, “Can’t you cry in any other vowels?”
What’s makes this episode work so much isn’t Yang’s exaggerated mannerisms (though those are great), but more the relationship between the two cousins. Nora and Edmund always seemed to be at each other’s throats in the first season and it was certainly enjoyable, but now they are bonding on a more spiritual level. Edmund finally understands what it is like to be a failure and that has given him a different outlook on Nora’s laidback style.
It doesn’t hurt that, once again, the show isn’t leaving Nora alone. That’s really the main thing I took from this selection of episodes: Nora from Queens isn’t putting the spotlight solely on Awkwafina. She’s certainly capable of being funny in isolation, but her star is rising regardless of this show. She’s only gotten more opportunities since Comedy Central greenlit this idea and she’s likely about to explode after appearing in Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings next month. She doesn’t need a show to broadcast her talents to the world, so it’s definitely for the better that her co-stars are given the focus.
That doesn’t mean everything I complained about last time is rectified. The first four episodes are breezier and funnier, but there’s still a lack of consistency when it comes to storylines. I don’t mind sketch comedy shows and have even found a renewed interest in anthology series over the past few months, but Nora from Queens sometimes feels scattershot. Maybe that develops further as the season goes on, but I can’t tell from the first four episodes.
The lack of access to later episodes is what initially prevented me from wanting to write a full review, but then I started to realize something when I rewatched a few of last season’s efforts. All four episodes here are better than 90% of the first season. It’s not a drastic improvement where season one is now worthless, but there’s more to laugh about and more detail given to each character. Sure, the narrative doesn’t ultimately matter, and side characters still feel a bit underdeveloped, but then grandma walks in and says something like, “Get your ass out of bed!”
I’m pretty confident in saying that Nora from Queens is something you should keep an eye on this season. It may not redefine what is possible with sitcoms, but as an outlet for Awkwafina to highlight not only other Asian actors but various women in the industry, it has certainly proven itself to be worthy of admiration.