Awkwafina and her comedic acting are some of the best parts of Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, though the rest of the cast is equally talented, such as her grandma, played by Lori Tan Chinn (Orange is the New Black’s Mei Chang). She steals the show during all of her scenes as a clever and funny matriarch. In the second episode, she gives a big, dramatic speech to convince Nora to come to Atlantic City, crying about her friend's broken hip to eventually guilt Nora into going. "Okay, see you downstairs!" she says. "Don't embarrass me."
Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens is a sweet show when it focuses on Nora’s family, which clearly loves and supports her. That said, the first two episodes don’t really provide evidence that it’s anything special in the television landscape. It's simply another show about someone in their twenties who hasn’t figured out what they’re doing with their life. In this day and age, there isn’t even anything that pathetic about the fact that Nora lives with her dad and grandma, though the show insists there is.
During the pilot, Nora feels pressured to move out from her family’s home. The episode sees her involved in a series of hijinks, ending with her sleeping in her car until her dad swoops in to pick her up. Her father gives a sweet speech about letting go, emphasizing that there’s nothing wrong with living with your family, especially not when it loves you as much as Nora’s.
Nora also runs into friends from high school who were supposedly more successful than her—one went to law school and another got a full ride to Emerson—only to realize both of them are in the same desperate circumstances as her. The alleged lawyer failed the bar exam and is working as a cam girl, while the Emerson alum got a BFA and ended up working on the Atlantic City boardwalk.
It’s a harrowing, deeply pessimistic display of our generation’s job prospects. But it’s also somewhat comforting to know that if we’re all in Nora’s shoes, our seemingly successful friends are probably no better off. The show emphasizes camaraderie, or the notion that we're all trying to find purpose in our lives and coping with failure.
Nora finishes the episode by cleaning her deeply cluttered room, which her grandmother had asked her to do in the beginning of the pilot. It was a narratively satisfying end for the character. She's making steps to improve her circumstances without doing something she isn’t ready for—only to reveal that Nora had shoved all of her junk in her closet.
Sometimes the character’s incompetency is funny, but her ineptitude can also be frustrating. It would be more powerful for Nora to reclaim her life from rock–bottom, instead of simply jumping from disaster to disaster, which appears to be the show's structure.
There are only so many ways you can separate the protagonist of the show from Awkwafina herself. The character has her name (Nora), her background (a half–Chinese half–Korean woman in Queens), and, one can assume, her trajectory. The viewer can't help but hope Nora will eventually find fame and success, too. In a meta way, Awkwafina literally is Nora from Queens, both in and out of the show itself. Knowing she will prosper just makes her current circumstances all the more frustrating.
That being said, this isn’t really a show about the Asian American struggle, and it doesn’t have to be. It can just be another show starring Asian American people, a revolutionary concept in and of itself. Maybe there’s something special about making a raunchy sitcom focused on an Asian American woman in the big city for once. But when considering Awkwafina’s recent career success as a film star, there’s nothing groundbreaking about Awkwafina Is Nora from Queens, especially when compared to the exploration of Asian American culture and identity in her critically acclaimed film The Farewell.