'Bob Hearts Abishola': TV Review

A surprisingly nuanced vision of immigrant life.
9/23/2019

Chuck Lorre's latest CBS sitcom depicts a sweet courtship between a lonely white businessman and a Nigerian immigrant nurse.

Like most other Chuck Lorre shows, Bob Hearts Abishola is a sitcom about vulnerability. Over his career, the uber-producer has explored aging, poverty, addiction, corpulence, single parenthood, neurodivergence and other experiences that can leave a person in the margins of American life. On its surface, CBS' sweet multicam Bob Hearts Abishola is another open-hearted Lorrean romantic comedy about folks from opposite perspectives coming together against the odds, à la The Big Bang Theory or Dharma & Greg. What sets it apart, however, is the show's focus on the lives of immigrants and, in particular, first-generation West African immigrants living in the American Midwest.

I had two fears going into this show: 1) That a network TV series about a white, middle-aged Detroit businessman romantically pursuing a pretty Nigerian nurse would spend a lot of time "othering" its immigrant characters for the sake of joke-telling. And 2) The writers would primarily center the feelings of hound dog Nice Guy™ over those of an uninterested woman who must be coerced into accepting his advances.

I'm happy to report my concerns were (mostly) unfounded due to the show's surprising level of nuance, which renders Bob Hearts Abishola nothing short of groundbreaking.

Is the show perfect in every possible facet of cultural representation, including the complete avoidance of racism for laughs? Unfortunately, no. Does it feature characters conducting entire subtitled conversations in Yoruba, one of the many languages spoken in Nigeria? Excitingly, yes.  

Billy Gardell (former lead of Mike & Molly) stars as Bob, the lonely workaholic owner of a compression sock company who is rushed to the emergency room mid-heart attack in the opening moments of the pilot. (Ignore the twin fat and fart jokes in the first minute of the script; it gets better.)

After waking up in a recovery room, he spies fresh-faced cardiac nurse Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku) and immediately imprints on her. She snubs his tepid flirting — "Do people call you Abby?" "No! Go back and wash your hands" — but as soon as she sings to him in her native language to help calm his nerves, he's a complete goner. By the end of the episode, he's delivering her premium socks in a dorky bid at wooing. Despite herself, the no-nonsense woman is somewhat charmed.

What draws you into the show isn't the will-they-or-won't-they marriage plot, but Bob's earnest likeability contrasted with the pragmatic vivacity of its immigrant characters. Olowofoyeku bewitches as the delightfully gruff and straightforward Abishola, a hardworking woman who has been estranged from her husband since he returned to Lagos eight years ago due to his inability to work as a civil engineer here. She and her seventh grader son Dele (Travis Wolfe Jr.) currently live with her adorably meddling relatives Auntie Olu (Shola Adewusi, a comic spark) and Uncle Tunde (Barry Shabaka Henley), who hilariously jump into marriage negotiations the minute they learn a successful businessman is interested in their niece. (Think of them as Nigerian versions of the funny, doofy elderly parents from Everyone Loves Raymond.)

On the flip side, Bob's sniping and stressful family is the weakest part of the show in the three episodes available to critics. He's dogged by his needy mom Dottie (66-year-old Christine Ebersole, who was clearly a teen bride when she had 50-year-old Bob) and his two pain-in-the-butt siblings (Matt Jones and Maribeth Monroe), who all help him run the family business. His brother and sister immediately oppose Bob's pursuit of Abishola, claiming they don't believe their long-divorced sibling could successfully date someone so different from himself, which feels like a veiled way to avoid coloring the characters as outward racists.

While Abishola's instincts tell her to remain cautious of Bob's interest, her girlfriends at the hospital are as tickled about the courtship as her aunt and uncle. In one eye-opening lunchtime scene, they discuss the ethnic hierarchy of who Abishola would choose to marry. As her spunky busybody friend Kemi (Gina Yashere) explains, "Top of the list, Nigerian man — same tribe (Yoruba). Then, Nigerian man — different tribe (Igbo). Then, other Africans (except Tunisians and Egyptians). Obviously. Then Caribbean. Then white. Then African American."

Their other friend, a black woman named Gloria (Vernee Watson), takes offense to this, starting a hot-button debate between the two of them about anti-black propaganda. Interestingly, it's not the first time the series alludes to cultural mistrust between black Americans and African immigrants, reminding the audience that people of African descent aren't a monolithic group. I'm curious how the series will go on to explore this, though I'm wary that by continuously highlighting the friction between these two groups, the series will by default become a platform for denigrating black Americans.

Co-created by British comedian Yashere, whose parents immigrated to England from Nigeria before she was born, Bob Hearts Abishola isn't afraid to cling to cultural authenticity. Characters carry on conversations about preparing stockfish and pounded yam and pepper their dialogue with non-English words. I won't claim the show is going to solve anti-immigrant sentiment or represent the entirety of the immigrant experience in America, but so far it's pleasant, detailed and occasionally laugh-out-loud funny.

Cast: Billy Gardell, Folake Olowofoyeku, Shola Adewusi, Barry Shabaka Henley, Christine Ebersole, Gina Yashere, Matt Jones, Maribeth Monroe, Vernee Watson, Travis Wolfe, Jr.

Executive Producers: Chuck Lorre, Eddie Gorodetsky, Al Higgins, Gina Yashere

Premieres: Monday, September 23rd at 8:30 pm (CBS)