Comedian turned actress Awkwafina is stoned, horny, & transnational in a new series on Comedy Central.
In the last year, Awkwafina has shown remarkable emotional range with her Golden Globe-winning performance in The Farewell (2019), making 2020 the extraordinary year an Asian YouTube rapper famous for a song called “My Vag” can carry serious weight as a multilingual prestige film actress. She’s having, as you say, a moment.
But before she was Awkwafina, she was Nora Lum, a young Asian-American girl from Queens, New York. Now, at the height of her fame, she’s got her own loosely-autobiographical sitcom on Comedy Central. Awkwafina is Nora from Queens follows the misadventures of lost-soul stoner Nora, who lives at home with her single dad Wally (B.D. Wong) and eccentric grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn). In an ambitious first season, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens (which we’ll abbreviate to AINFQ) offers plenty of heart and humor while skillfully skirting well-trodden tropes of the white imagination toward the Asian-American experience.
Throughout the first season of the show (co-created by Awkwafina and Teresa Hsiao, with showrunning duties performed by Karey Dornetto), we get the full brand of Awkwafina’s humor: wry, confused, raunchy, and crass, with plenty of weed and vibrators (big vibrators) to go around. Yet she finds the dramatic facets of Nora. She feels her failures. She lets herself down, but always finds a way to pick herself back up.
It helps that she’s got a terrific family to work with. B.D. Wong gives one of his most exciting performances. Be it dating again or navigating social media, Wong gives us an endearing human trying to figure their own way through complex matrices of life in America. He embraces Wally’s frustration with Nora with compassion so that his frustration feels understandable. His relationship with Grandma has a great push and pull. They want the best for each other, even if it means having a pigeon in the house.
Chinn and Wong worked together in Wong’s Broadway debut in the Tony-winning M. Butterfly in 1988, which is perhaps why the pair have such palpable chemistry. Chinn is really the surprise here; though we got hints of her gifts as the aloof Mei Chang on Orange is the New Black, AINFQ displays Chinn’s ability to be sincere, caring, while also vulgar, brash, and performative. Her character may be larger-than-life, but Chinn gives a dynamic performance that never rings false.
Though the series is trying to capture a tone similar to the network’s recently ended Broad City (2014-2019), complete with animated bumpers, the unique centering on the inter-generational pair of Nora and Grandma offers a chance to show relationships often unexplored in the sitcom world. Lum and Chinn’s relationship spins even the gristlier parts of their personalities into comedic gold. Their trip to Atlantic City brings out the best and worst in each other, but their lessons are learned and healed with touching resolution.
The whole show has assembled a great cast of characters that call back the history of Asian American representation, like Ming-Na Wen (The Joy Luck Club, Mulan) and Deborah S. Craig (The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee) while also using the hilarious talents of Bowen Yang (Saturday Night Live) and the devastating timing and good looks of Simu Liu (Kim’s Convenience, the forthcoming Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings) to look to the contemporary moment of representation. It’s a wonderfully diverse and collaborative cast that allows each guest to shine and share in the moment.
Diverse performances require a diverse setting, and Queens and its surrounding areas are as much a character as Nora. The Queens of AINFQ is perhaps cleaner than in real life, but the show works to show the vitality and inter-cultural exchange that happens when people of diverse races and classes are stacked on top of each other.
In an ambitious first season, Awkwafina is Nora from Queens offers plenty of heart and humor.
That Awkwafina is Nora from Queens feels so contemporary is perhaps its most radical asset. As Sunaina Maira says in her essay “Indo-Chic: Late Capitalist Orientalism and Imperial Culture,” all too often, the white imagination dictates that Asian women enact Asian culture, that they possess a certain timelessness, “the ancient” in the modern. In the past, Asian women have been depicted as deeply conflicted about the rip between tradition and modernity. But AINFQ has an ambivalent relationship with Chinese history. Instead, Nora identifies heavily as American and is far from porcelain. She’s outrageous, incomplete, and directionless. The Sino-chic orientalisms of the post-Marie Kondo era are expelled with no apologies.
The show has areas for expansion, but nothing atypical for a first season. The first few episodes largely stand on their own, which may be difficult to build audience engagement in The Streaming Era. But as the season reaches its end, some of the episodes are connected by thin sinews of narrative, which made for more engaged satisfying viewing. Future seasons look like they would explore Nora and Wally’s search for love, and Nora’s search for just, like, a job. Hopefully, any future seasons will add more shading and nuance and more Auntie Shu Shu, Grandma’s best friend who makes one brief, but highly memorable appearance.
AINFQ will hopefully continue to shatter the constricting criteria Hollywood has for Asian American representation. Awkwafina has shown she is critically engaged with this history of Asian-American representation and her intelligence shines through in her new show. What’s remarkably genuine is that nothing feels didactic or forced. Its transgressions feel effortless because Awkwafina is being real: stoned, horny, and transnational. She’s just Nora from Queens.
Awkwafina is Nora From Queens comes to your neighborhood (and Comedy Central) on January 22nd.