Review: ‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ isn’t as funny as its namesake

Awkwafina, right, and Lori Tan Chinn, as her grandmother, sitting on steps in a scene from "Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens."
Awkwafina, right, and Lori Tan Chinn in “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” on Comedy Central.
(Zach Dilgard / Comedy Central)

“Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens,” premiering Wednesday on Comedy Central, is written, produced and stars the show’s namesake in a series inspired by her aimless life before finding a career in comedy.

Raunchy humor, cross-cultural high jinks and a haze of pot smoke envelop this 10-episode, half-hour comedy set in Flushing, N.Y., but at its core, the series is a familiar millennial journey from over-extended childhood to delayed adulthood. (Other excellent examples include “Master of None,” “Ramy” and “Insecure.”)

The “floundering 20-something” construct might work if “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” possessed the originality, momentum and eviscerating comedic timing of its star, but it does not. This collection of wacky conundrums and underachiever gags feels like a missed opportunity — and distinctly half-realized next to her other stellar achievements of late.

Earlier this month, Awkwafina (whose given name is Nora Lum) became the first Asian American woman to win a Golden Globe for best actress when she was awarded for her performance as Billi in Lulu Wang’s film “The Farewell.” The breakthrough followed her arrival on the worldwide stage in “Crazy Rich Asians.”

Fans of her music may see the new show as the fulfillment of a promise Awkwafina rapped about two years ago in her song “Testify”: “Queens is a trek, so none of my city friends have visited yet. But it’s alright, I don’t mind, give it time. Imma make the city so proud.”

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There is reason to celebrate. Awkwafina’s cable series is highly anticipated, which says a lot about her ability to draw a crowd. Television is, after all, saturated with excellent comedies. Unfortunately, hers is not one of them.

The 31-year-old portrays a fictionalized, earlier version of herself: ITT graduate, single, stoner, nearing 30, still living with her family. They are dysfunctional, of course, but also tightknit and supportive. Her grandmother (Lori Tan Chinn of “Orange Is the New Black”) is a gruff old gal who spits and curses like a sailor. Her dad (Tony Award-winner BD Wong, of “Mr. Robot”) is a loving but disengaged parent. Nora’s overachieving, Silicon Valley flush cousin (“Saturday Night Live” freshman Bowen Yang) is always there to remind her of her failures — and he has plenty of material to work with.

Nora’s bedroom looks like an episode of “Hoarders.” She loses her job as an Uber driver just one day in, after sharing details about her sexual preferences with a mortified passenger and then crashing her already scrappy car. And on a bus trip with her grandma’s senior group to Atlantic City, both women are kicked out of the casino.

The situations almost don’t matter, because history shows that Awkwafina can do a lot with a little. Her crass persona often drives the joke, but here, dildo and flatulence pranks do not make up for the series’ missing elements. There’s formidable talent behind the show — directors include Natasha Lyonne (“Russian Doll”), Lucia Aniello (“Broad City”) and Jamie Babbit (“But I’m a Cheerleader”) — but there isn’t enough strong material to work with. Nora needs more than meandering dialogue and a few absurd set pieces (catching her roommate’s apartment on fire, for example) to emerge from her funk as an underdeveloped character.

This show won’t make or break the star. Awkwafina’s far enough along and has the wind at her back. She’s a self-made comedic force and now a drama queen, even if “Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens” fails to capture the true power of her oddball allure.

‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’

Where: Comedy Central

When: 10:30 p.m. Wednesday

Rating: TV-14 (may be unsuitable for children younger than 14)