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Comedy Central Ventures Into the Unknown—and Into Queens

‘Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens’ comes at a time when network and star should be moving forward, but it’s more of the same for both

Comedy Central/Ringer illustration

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and in an industry as cutthroat and turnover-happy as television, flattery is rampant. The sudden glut of network family dramas is clearly modeled on the success of This Is Us; a recent run of high-budget fantasy series owes its green light to Game of Thrones; movie stars began flooding the miniseries market after the marquee success of True Detective and Big Little Lies. It’s the nature of the business to do what works until, and often well after, it doesn’t work anymore.

Comedy Central’s latest sitcom is still an unusually brazen example, though, because the show it’s modeling itself after is the erstwhile flagship of its own network. Awkwafina Is Nora From Queens, premiering Wednesday night, hinges on a self-explanatory mouthful of a premise. (The title will henceforth be abbreviated to just Nora From Queens, you’re welcome.) Comedian and actress Nora Lum, better known as Awkwafina, has reached the Insecure-Girls stage of her fame, anchoring a semi-autobiographical half-hour perfectly timed to follow the recent Golden Globe win for her performance in Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. But in practice, Nora From Queens doesn’t feel much like the introductions created by Issa Rae, Lena Dunham, and Awkwafina’s fellow Globe winner Ramy Youssef—total immersions in a specific point of view, designed to familiarize the audience with the persona of its creator-star. Instead, the show seems transparently modeled after Broad City, the groundbreaking, five-season friendship saga that concluded last year. By the end of the five episodes sent out to critics, the viewer comes away with less of a sense of who Nora is than how much she isn’t Abbi or Ilana.

Nora From Queens arrives at a critical time for Comedy Central. The network’s longtime president, Kent Alterman, was recently ousted, a casualty of parent company Viacom’s ongoing merger with CBS. (Cue the Succession theme.) The resulting chorus that broke out to sing Alterman’s praise is a testament to the slew of landmark series the executive had a hand in developing. “His thoughts on Kroll Show were smart, funny, open-ended, and actionable,” cocreator John Levenstein wrote. “I know that Broad City would not exist without him,” Abbi Jacobson attested. Review’s Andy Daly chimed in with a story about Alterman apologizing for a note after the writers ignored it and delivered a beloved, innovative episode.

Alterman had served as Comedy Central’s head since 2013, an era that also encompassed Key & Peele, Inside Amy Schumer, and The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore. In the brief window between the premium-cable-led Golden Age and the streaming-dominated power struggles of the past couple of years, Comedy Central came to represent the leading light of basic cable—and the hope that TV’s proliferation could amplify smaller platforms instead of drowning them out. But then Netflix, still streaming’s biggest player, started to encroach on Comedy Central’s turf: first by cornering the market on stand-up specials, then by funding the kind of offbeat, voice-driven titles (I Think You Should Leave, BoJack Horseman) Comedy Central once made its calling card. In a symbolic reversal of the days when Netflix licensed back catalogs to grow its subscriber base, Comedy Central started to air BoJack in syndication in 2018.

In the years since Comedy Central’s cultural peak, Amy Schumer has pivoted to would-be movie stardom and material about motherhood, while Jordan Peele has become a bona fide auteur. With Broad City’s conclusion, the last of its former standard-bearers is finally off the air, a vacuum Nora From Queens seems well-positioned to fill. And following a couple of breakout years—including a supporting role in Crazy Rich Asians, another in the star-heavy Ocean’s 8, and an awards-friendly show of restraint in The Farewell—for Awkwafina, the show arrives with an alignment of publicity stars that money can’t buy. The supporting cast only augments the buzz: Orange Is the New Black’s Lori Chinn, as Nora’s tough-talking grandma; BD Wong, playing against type as her taciturn, blue-collar dad; SNL newcomer Bowen Yang, as her overachieving cousin. No wonder Comedy Central ordered a second season before the first had even premiered: On paper, Nora From Queens is an ideal centerpiece for a gradual rebuild of Comedy Central’s scripted lineup.

But it’s hard not to worry that the network has put the cart before the horse. Nora From Queens’ namesake is a familiar archetype, a 27-year-old slacker living at home with no discernible direction in life. But she—and the show—is familiar in more targeted ways than the time-honored trope of an actor playing a version of themselves sans the drive, talent, and motivation to make a TV show. Like Broad City, Nora From Queens uses animated interstitials in lieu of a credits sequence, furnished with New York hallmarks like speeding subway trains. Like Broad City, Nora From Queens trades in broad (no pun intended) stoner humor; in the pilot, Nora pauses mid-hug to rip a bong. Like Broad City, Nora From Queens delves into the scrappier side of urban existence. A quite-possibly-haunted impound lot in Nora could easily be next door to North Brother Island.

Not all of these parallels are mere coincidences; Broad City writer-director Lucia Aniello also serves on the Nora From Queens staff. But even when Nora From Queens comes by its Broad City echoes honestly, they only serve to remind the viewer how far this execution of the formula is from the original. After Awkwafina’s nuanced, grounded work in The Farewell, reverting to the loudmouthed braggadocio of near-decade-old novelty raps like “My Vag” inevitably feels like a regression—except Nora From Queens lacks the cleverness that made vintage Awkwafina a sensation in the first place. Chinn is a delightful presence, but her character amounts to little more than a collection of inappropriate and/or anachronistic references in place of a proper punch line.

Awkwafina’s performance, in theory the show’s foundation, is overcompensatory, upping the volume to make up for the lack of edge. Far more qualified observers have already dissected the complicated racial optics of Awkwafina’s presentation, and Lord knows Broad City wasn’t without its foot-in-mouth moments. Still, Broad City’s brushes with appropriation were more self-aware, more complicated (“You’re so anti-racist, sometimes, that you’re actually really racist”), and ultimately funnier than those in Nora From Queens. Nora From Queens could survive being problematic—but it can’t survive being stale.

Comedy Central isn’t entirely reliant on this single venture’s success. Child stardom spoof The Other Two, returning for a second season this year, was one of the strongest new series of 2019, and while poor ratings doomed it to an early demise, Detroiters signaled a continued ability to identify and foster rising talent, validated by Tim Robinson’s subsequent flourishing on Netflix. As a start to the post-Alterman era, however, Nora From Queens is an inauspicious beginning. To figure out its future, Comedy Central needs more of a strategy than reaching into its past.