This weekend, two new series arrive on BBC iPlayer. One is American, the other is Welsh. Both feature strong female leads that tell uncommon stories. Aside from that, there is absolutely nothing in common between them.
Okwafina is a Nora from Queens (Released Sunday, ★★★ ☆☆) Starring rapper, comedian, and actress Okwafina as she plays a semi-fictional version of herself who grew up in New York when she was still old Nora Blame.
The show’s basic details are true to its true upbringing: Nora lives with her brilliant grandmother (Lori Tan Chen) and her reclusive father (BD Wong) in an apartment in Queens, where she tries to figure out what to do with her life.
27-year-old fictional Nora has an relaxed mindset in line with delusional work expectations visualized through the mists of cannabis and Red Bull. When her father walks into his office to find her sleeping at his desk after he used his computer to play Savage Valley all night, he quietly made his feelings known:
Dad: I hate using my computer.
Nora: Dad! We discussed this, you know what I’m using it for.
Dad: To play fruity-tutti games.
Nora: No! To send emails and apply for jobs.
Dad: Oh, what are the jobs?
Nora: Editor-in-chief of the Miami Herald, curator of music for Stranger Things, attorney at the Trenton Department of Justice.
Baba [with a delivery as dry as the Arizona desert]: These are not applicable functions.
The show is more entertaining than funny unless the non-PC granny engages, when everything moves up a notch. The scene where you choose to fight with an arrogant old Korean woman in Atlantic City has classic ingredients.
Insults are exchanged, ethnic stereotypes are exchanged, iPads are forcibly disconnected as the two elderly women confront their OAP staff in support. Grandma was taken by security, only to meet Nora outside who was also evacuated.
Nora: Grandma, what happened?
Grandma: I got fired … after I got into a quarrel with some Korean prostitutes.
Norah: You tried to start an inter-Asiatic war there?
Grandma: Oh yeah, they make good TV series, and I’m going to give them that.
Norah: You know I’m half a Korean, right?
Grandma: Well, yeah girl, yeah.
As anyone who has seen her 2012 hit song My Vag on YouTube knows, Awkwafina is a genius. Or, at least, very talented. She was brilliant in Crazy Rich Asians (2018) and exceptional in The Farewell (2019) as she became the first woman of Asian descent to win a Golden Globe for Best Actress. She has an onscreen presence as Keith Richards’ new teeth, which means she really stands out.
All this makes her new sitcom a little disappointing. Although her heightened reality is epitomized in the life that she grew up as an Asian American in New York feeling refreshed, the show as a whole is sober and traditional.
The jokes hit easy targets instead of revealing the facts of the house in a script co-written by the actress who works in an area so comfortable that it’s like watching Lewis Hamilton racing against a bunch of kids in little buggies – it still sounds cool but it’s not exactly like you don’t get your pulse . The show is good, but Okwafina is much better than that.
Hell is on wheels (Released earlier this week, ★★★★ ☆) also boasts an attractive female lead, like Nora’s grandmother, who doesn’t mind going toe-to-toe with anyone trying to score one on top of her. In fact, that’s what Kid Block spends most of its time doing in this excellent documentary series about the rise and rise of Roller Derby as an international sport.
We are told that Kidd has achieved everything the sport has to offer, including representing England in two World Championships. We meet her as she plays with the aptly named Tiger Bay Brawlers in Wales, a team she rejoins as captain and coach after a successful stint with the London Roller Derby, the nation’s best team.
Kidd is driving from the bottom of her ski boot to the end of her crash cap. She readily admits that not all of the team are best friends, but rather family, with a love and loyalty relationship. And they have a mission to do, which is to go from Welsh Champions to European Champions. It’s a big request for a group that has suffered some crushing losses, but with Kidd in charge, anything is possible.
And so we follow 5-foot-11-inch star Roller Derby and her band of vivacious women in their quest for glory. That’s the premise anyway, and it’s a regular sports documentary.
Except, nothing is normal about Kidd or her team. They are described in the opening credits as “inappropriate,” but as the thumbnails of the main players make clear, they are not strangers at all, they are simply regular people trying to find a way to get around the complexities of modern day life.
The players, not the game, are the real story, with Roller Derby growing in popularity as a major sport developed for and by women and a dramatic tool for exploring the lives of Kid, Jen, Kim et al.
The match coverage and profiles are well balanced, with dynamics within the team being observed through pictorial training sessions overlapping with field-side interviews.
The game looks brutal and confusing at times, but the basic rules are explained and each episode re-explained. From what I understand, the Roller Derby matches are held in a wooden-floor indoor court, and are held within a wide oval tramway.
Two teams of five players on the field have a specific individual whose job it is to knock their opponents as close as possible (somewhat similar to roundabouts), while the other four try to block the forward’s progress. This results in bodily collisions, broken bones and high-speed accidents. It is the definition of a complete contact sport.
Out of court is a different matter. Roller Derby has clearly fostered an inclusive, supportive environment that everyone welcomes. When self-styled Nitro-Jen suffered a mental breakdown after years of being a successful chef, she sent an email to join Tiger Bay Brawlers and asked if “transsexuality was a problem”. The response was “not a problem at all … would be more than welcome.” She changed her life.
In fact, it seems Roller Derby has come just in time for all players as he pushes Tiger Bay Brawlers and works their way toward their dream of tournament glory. I’m not sure I’ll be a Season Ticket holder, but if they do another Hell on Wheels series, I’ll sit in the front row.
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