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‘Awkwafina is Nora From Queens’: Before a Star Was Born

Opening a bank account. Driving a ride-share. A beauty shop appointment. A trip to Atlantic City. Pretty ho-hum details in the life of an average New York girl in her late 20s, right?

In the hands of rapper/comedian/actress Awkwafina, however, these basic activities become batty misadventures that rely heavily on the charm of the recent best actress Golden Globe winner to keep the new Comedy Central series Awkwafina is Nora From Queens from wearing out its welcome. 

A semi-autobiographical take on Awkwafina’s upbringing in Queens cohabiting with her far-too-understanding widower father (B.D. Wong) and saucy, foul-mouthed Chinese immigrant grandmother (Orange is the New Black’s Lori Tan Chinn), Awkwafina’s titular character Nora Lum (the 31-year-old star’s real name) flounders through life – usually high. Whether she’s trying to juggle the rigors of being a first-time office assistant and gaming all night or taking advantage of an empty house to schedule a seven-to-12-hour masturbation sesh with the aid of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, Nora falls into mischief faster than Comedy Central renewed the show for a second season.

Awkwafina’s wisecracking delivery and manic presence mask the sadness inherent in her character’s aimless trajectory. Whether the creators intended it or not, some of Nora’s zany quirks, like her inability to remember or locate her social security number, seem to say something deeper about a motherless young woman navigating the world.

Not that love doesn’t surround her. The scenes between the core trio give the show its emotional weight, elevating it beyond a collection of truly laugh-out-loud zingers. Despite the exasperation each feels for the other at times, Nora actually likes her dad and in turn he truly likes his mother. The addition of Nora’s über-successful cousin (Saturday Night Live’s Bowen Yang) only heightens the familial bond while upping the awkward tension.

One of the goals of executive producer Teresa Hsiao was to portray Asian-American characters as more than traditional Tiger parents, which means no subject is too personal for this unit. Sex, drugs, even Nora’s birth story come up in conversation and the comedy stems from the broad intimacy of these exchanges. “You clung on to her uterus like the Thing. It was so gross, man. I threw up on the nurse,” Wong’s Wally tells Nora in an effort to comfort her after a particularly bleak financial misstep. This reminiscence demonstrates how easily the show veers from gag-inducing to heartwarming and back again.

Awkwafina’s real life success helps the audience see past Nora’s self-absorption, because too often you just want to shake Nora and shout: GET IT TOGETHER! However, one doesn’t stand out in star-studded ensemble pieces like Crazy Rich Asians and Oceans 8, or make news by getting snubbed by the Oscars for a tremendous dramatic turn in The Farewell without acute drive and ambition. Hopefully, Nora catches up soon.

Awkwafina is Nora From Queens debuts Wednesday, Jan. 22, at 10:30pm ET on Comedy Central