In the summer of 2018, Awkwafina exploded onto movie screens with scene-hijacking turns in Ocean’s Eight and Crazy Rich Asians. She seemed the kind of force of nature, akin to Robin Williams or Melissa McCarthy, who was so full of comic life, she could not only generate laughs out of thin air, but often shone brightest when left alone onscreen. Still, there were moments in both of those films — particularly the Crazy Rich Asians sequence where her character and Nico Santos’ help Constance Wu’s Rachel get dressed up for the big wedding — where she made an outstanding partner for one of her co-stars, and left me wondering if she’s at her best as a solo artist or part of a double act.
After seeing the full first season of her largely autobiographical Comedy Central series, Awkafina Is Nora From Queens, I’m still not sure. There are, as you might expect, long stretches where she’s on her own, just riffing. Some are hilarious — like when she talk-to-texts a friend, using impeccable grammar and punctuation, to explain that she’s about to masturbate for the next seven to 12 hours — while others feel labored. The show is more consistent when she has a scene partner, yet its comic ceiling feels higher when she’s the only one onscreen.
It’s easy to understand why so much of this sitcom is just the Farewell star out there on her own. Not only is she in the middle of a big pop-culture moment (even sans Oscar nomination), but the show is unabashedly true to her life. Awkafina plays a character who shares her real name (Nora Lum), home borough, and background as a woman raised by her widower father Wally (B.D. Wong) and his Chinese immigrant mother (Lori Tan Chinn). This is her story — exaggerated for television, but still hers — so of course she’s the focus.
The fictionalized Nora Lum isn’t a successful actress or rapper — though her “melancholic, flute-like queefing” does end up as part of a SoundCloud hit in one very funny episode, probably as a hat tip to this old track of hers. She isn’t sure what she wants to do with her life besides move out of Wally’s house. She tries various ways to do this over the course of the season, from being a terrible rideshare driver to helping her smug cousin Edmund (SNL‘s Bowen Yang) develop an app to scrub embarrassing photos from the internet. Mostly, though, the plots are excuses for the star to play, using all the endearing energy that’s become her trademark as a comedian.
Nora’s fondness for weed, the animated transitions between some scenes, and the depiction of New York as both fantasyland and hellscape evoke the late, great Broad City. But this is a version where one actor is playing Abbi and Ilana at the same time — alternately mortified and fearless, sometimes within the same scene. Human beings are complex and contain multitudes, but the scripted Nora often seems at war with herself in ways unintended by the producers (including Awkwafina and Karey Dornetto). And the moments when she’s all unbridled id tend to suit her best.
Awkwafina does play very well with others whenever given the chance. The fourth episode guest-stars Michelle Buteau as a woman who enlists Nora as her partner to scam their way into one paid focus group after another. The chemistry between the two of them is wonderful, as is the escalating lunacy of the disguises they use to keep those focus-group dollars rolling in. And when Nora is interacting with her dad(*) or, especially, her grandmother, the series feels as natural and focused as you might expect, given the shared origin stories of the real and the fake Nora.
(*) B.D. Wong’s versatility is one of his strengths, so it’s not surprising that he can segue from playing trans supervillain Whiterose on Mr. Robot to this genially normcore guy who just likes to go to the gym, and maybe flirt with one of the moms (Jennifer Esposito) at a single parents support group he joins to vent about what a headache Nora is. Still, it’s amusing that these wound up being consecutive roles for him. And he’s deceptively funny whenever needed here, like in his description of Nora’s birth: “You clung onto her uterus like the Thing. It was so gross, man. I threw up on the nurse.”
In becoming the titular star, Awkwafina leaves herself open to having scenes stolen by her co-stars the way she’s done to others in the past. Chinn (who had a small but indelible role on Orange Is the New Black as antisocial prisoner Chang) is just delightful as Nora’s grandmother, a stubborn but clever old woman as gifted at getting herself into trouble as she is getting Nora out of it. There’s a terrific running gag about how her dislike of Korean immigrants — much to the consternation of Nora, who (like Awkwfina) had a Korean-American mom — is in direct conflict with her addiction to Korean soap operas. It pays off marvelously in an episode where the story of how she came to America and fell in love is presented like it’s an installment of one of those K-dramas.
Enough works in this season to make it feel like a smart next phase in Awkwafina’s acting career. But when Nora returns for a second season (it’s already been renewed), she and her fellow producers would do well to figure out exactly who this fictional Nora is, and whether she’s best out on her own, or as part of a buddy act.
Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens debuts January 22nd on Comedy Central. I’ve seen all 10 episodes.