Over the past few years, Nora Lum, otherwise known as the viral rapper-turned-actor Awkwafina, has honed her ability to play scrappy scammer characters. She gave one of the only good performances in the mess that was Ocean’s 8, playing a pick-pocketer named Constance alongside professional heist masterminds. In Crazy Rich Asians, she played Peik Lin, a flamboyant socialite who could elbow her way into a cocktail party in a second, considering she kept a spare wardrobe in the trunk of her luxury car. And in Lulu Wang’s drama, The Farewell, Lum did a 180, playing a young woman who must participate in a family-wide lie about her grandmother’s cancer diagnosis.
In her new show, Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens Awkwafina finally plays herself, or at least a hyped-up version of herself inspired by her life growing up in Queens. She’s 27-years-old, living with her father (BD Wong) and grandmother (Orange Is the New Black’s Lori Tan Chinn), and living in the shadow of her successful cousin Edmund (SNL’s Bowen Yang). She spends her unemployed days vaping, planning to masturbate exclusively to a DVD of Dirty Dancing: Havana Nights, and staying up all night playing video games with French tweens.
If a half-hour comedy about a struggling, stunted 20-something clinging to her bong sounds familiar, that’s because even if this is ostensibly a show based on Awkwafina’s life, it enters a growing canon of shows about wickedly funny female fuck-ups, from vile characters you can’t look away from (Fleabag) to rom-com heroines admirably blowing up their personal and professional lives (Insecure). Nora from Queens is also cut almost identically from the same template Broad City used, down to its bouncy, animated title sequences and camera style. That both shows are about young, perpetually broke, aimless women desperately trying to cobble a life together in a city increasingly built for the mega-rich doesn’t help Nora from Queens from feeling like you might have seen this act before. But what separates Awkwafina’s show a bit from its Comedy Central predecessor, and many of her peers in this space, is her extremely physical performance, which vacillates wildly between vibrating, screaming anxiety to a blissed-out slackerdom.
The show molds Nora into a millennial George Costanza, a completely delusional accidental scammer. In one episode, a chance encounter with a criminal (Michelle Buteau) leads her to use a series of fake IDs to get a place in focus groups, where she finds she can play anyone from a teenage boy to a Southern belle housewife. “She was all like, I can’t tell if you’re 12 or 47, and I took that as a compliment!” Nora screams. In another, she can’t open her bank account, which has been closed for two years because the bank thought she was dead. Without a valid form of ID, and not knowing her own Social Security number, she whispers to the bank teller, “what if you asked me something that only the real Nora Lin would know?” “I literally know nothing about you,” the bank teller replies dryly.
Each time she seems to inch towards some sense of financial stability, she ends up destroying it. “What kinds of jobs are you applying to?” her father asks her. With complete seriousness, she rattles off a list: “DOJ attorney for the city of Trenton, music supervisor for Stranger Things...” Eventually, she lands a spot as an assistant to a real estate agent who is trying to sell a few condemned properties, but Nora, hell-bent on keeping her night owl hours playing video games with European children, decides she should continually pop Adderall. Soon, she’s cutting her hair like Farrah Fawcett to match her boss and filling entire drawers at the office with highlighters. When she runs out of pills, she tries to convince her teenaged next-door neighbor to give her his more intense prescription, twitching behind a tree outside the school. “I know these fuckers have some,” she says, pointing wildly at random children. “I’ve been watching him all day.”
Nora from Queens is sweet and simple, even if at times it seems like it’s too formulaic of a show to encompass Lum’s range as a comedic weirdo. We’ve already seen Lum rise up from the backgrounds of so-so comedies, and here she does it again even within the one-size-fits-all aesthetic of the show. A Comedy Central show like this for any comedian would be a career-making godsend, but we happen to be meeting Lum right as her star power is at its brightest following the success of The Farewell. That a show like this suddenly feels too small for her talents is a testament to how far she’s come as a performer.