Awkwafina gives us a Nora to chill with, bro

Hank Stuever

THE WASHINGTON POST – In case you’re missing the extended Awkwafina moment now in progress, some background: She was born Nora Lum in 1988, raised in Queens. Using a stage name that has surely irked the lawyers at PepsiCo, she launched a career as a provocative rap artist, bringing forth the persona of her alter ego – an outspoken, sometimes hilariously boisterous Asian American woman named Awkwafina.

Her acting career soon took off, too, in such films as Crazy Rich Asians and Ocean’s 8 along with a hosting gig on Saturday Night Live and, this month, a best-actress Golden Globe Award for her role in The Farewell.

Perfect timing, then, for her TV series – Comedy Central’s Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, a patchy but occasionally amusing mélange of semi-autobiographical stories about the life of an even more awkward Awkwafina.

It’s a glance back over her shoulder, with a nod to what might have been.

Here, as Nora Lin, Awkwafina envisions a life in which fame never came calling. This Nora is a 30-ish, under-employed woman who still lives at home, in Queens, with her widowed father, Wally (BD Wong), and a nutty but adorable matriarch referred to simply as Grandma (Lori Tan Chinn).

FROM LEFT: Nora (Awkwafina) lives at home with her grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn) and father (BD Wong) in Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens. PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

In one very clear way, the series is a deserved answer to all the similarly structured comedies we’ve endured about lay-about white dudes.

For Nora’s take, simply add her suspicion that life peaked years ago when she won a Magic: The Gathering tournament as a teenager. Awkwafina is merely asserting Nora’s right to hang out, a slight twist on Comedy Central’s long line of underachieving young bros.

Yet she’s also firmly following a television template established eons ago by one Lucy Ricardo. True, Lucille Ball’s beloved 1950s klutz might not recognise much about Nora’s world in 2020, but she would notice the same sort of eternal optimism and overconfidence that gets Nora into episodic jams.

Lucy, too, would probably be a disaster as a Lyft driver. Lucy, too, might neglect her checking account for so many years that the bank assumes she’s dead and closes it. Lucy, too, might stare off into space when asked to provide her Social Security number – she has one, but never bothered to memorise it.

Lucy, too, might be so willing to please her new boss – a small-potatoes real estate agent saddled with a vacant apartment building nicknamed “the Chinese Death Trap”- that she snorts Adderall to boost her office efficiency to manic levels. And Lucy certainly could match Nora’s exuberance at an Atlantic City blackjack table, bragging loudly enough to onlookers about counting cards that she gets chased out by the casino’s heavies.

What fictional Nora has (and Lucy also had, come to think of it, in the form of a Cuban immigrant husband) is the perspective of a multicultural background. Awkwafina, who is of Chinese and Korean descent, leans on ethnicity comically but only when there’s no other joke to be made – usually by allowing Chinn’s character to either defuse or upgrade the old stereotypes of the rascally, wise elder.

Grandma’s remaining old-world sensibilities are a nice salve to Nora’s hyper-wired millennial ennui. The two women are good together.

Otherwise, the first five episodes of Nora From Queens tend to grasp around for the kind of show it wants to be: a little bit Broad City, a small dash of Insecure and even a gramme or two of High Maintenance but not as insightful or as fully realised.

It’s mainly a low-impact visit with a deeply absurd, under-achieving woman and her nevertheless supportive family.

The revelations are next to nil and the big laughs are not as frequent as a viewer might hope. SNL cast member Bowen Yang occasionally perks things up as Nora’s wealthy cousin, Edmund, whom the family likes to tease for having a vestigial tail.

What prevails – what may be the only theme here – is that Nora is at her best when everyone and everything around her will just let her chill. In that regard, it can be fun to watch her work so hard to get nowhere.