Created by: Chuck Lorre, Gina Yashere, Alan J. Higgins, Eddie Gorodetsky
Starring: Billy Gardell, Folake Olowofoyeku, Barry Shabaka Henley, Shola Adewusi, Travis Wolfe Jr., Vernee Watson
I’m not sure why so many people were up in arms about Bob Hearts Abishola. Perhaps it’s because CBS has such a poor track record with on-screen diversity. Perhaps it’s also because the diversity they do have on screen, such as the Cedric the Entertainer-starrer The Neighborhood, is cringey and clearly for an older, late-Baby Boomer audience, generally speaking. Perhaps it’s also because people took the show’s premise—an older White gentleman pursuing his Nigerian nurse who took care of him after he suffered a stress-induced heart attack—out of proportion. Online, the premise became twisted out of control into a White man forcing a Nigerian woman into becoming his girlfriend.
But everything people thought the show would be were unrealized fears. Bob Hearts Abishola is actually a cute, refreshing show amid the slate of CBS forgetableness.
Billy Gardell plays Bob, the head of his family’s sock empire eight years after his father died, also from a stress-induced heart attack. During his recovery, he’s cared for by Abishola, (Folake Olowofoyeku) a proficient, slightly aloof nurse who has a kind heart under her steely exterior. Bob starts falling for Abishola and her no-nonsense ways, and tries to woo her by giving her some of his company’s socks. However, it’ll take more to gain Abishola’s trust, who has a full life of her own. Aside from being one of the lead nurses at the hospital (along with Vernee Watson, aka Will Smith’s mom on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air as Gloria), Abishola takes care of her son Dele (Travis Wolfe Jr.) and lives with her uncle Tunde (Barry Shabaka Henley) and aunt Olu (Shola Adewusi). She also has to hear unsolicited dating advice from her friend and fellow Nigerian compatriot Kemi (played by the show’s co-creator, Gina Yashere, who is now a series regular). Overall, Bob will have to be up for the challenge of gaining Abishola’s heart, since it will clearly take a certain kind of man to gain entrance to such hallowed ground.
I have to borrow a word from The Hollywood Reporter’s review—nuance. I’m sure surprised to hear the word “nuance” when it comes to a CBS show, but truly, <em>Bob Hearts Abishola</em> does have a surprising amount of nuance, and clearly, I wasn’t expecting it. Moments of nuance:
- Actually including the Yoruba language in both the script and the theme song.
I know that should be a given, seeing how one of the main characters is Nigerian. However, how many shows have we seen featuring a Nigerian or otherwise African character where entire seasons can go by without hearing anything other than English (if ever)? Think about it. But what this show has going for it is that it has a Nigerian woman as its co-creator, which not only adds an air of legitimacy to the show, but also authenticity as well.
- Bob speaking Mandarin to his Malaysian business associate Wati (Raymond Ma).
This was actually quite smart of the show’s writers to do, since it reveals to us that Bob isn’t just your stereotypical Midwestern White dude—the stereotype of the dude who knows nothing of culture except for Wisconsin cheese. Instead, Bob is a man of the world. By showing him interacting with the Malaysian businessman in a way that didn’t encourage stereotypes of either character’s culture, it gave viewers a look at what America—and indeed, the world—could actually be like if people focused more on communication and less on discrimination. Granted, with that said, I’m sure some Mandarin-speakers could have something to say about the Mandarin accent featured in the episode; I don’t speak Mandarin except for the few words I’ve learned from watching Chinese dramas, so people can discuss the Mandarin accent in the comments section or on my social media channels.
- The moment between Abishola and Mrs. Lester (Tangie Ambrose) at the school showcased how the ever-present and annoying “diaspora wars” crop up in the most unexpected of places.
Perhaps now is as good a time as any for me to bring up the Diaspora Battle of 2018, when blogger/author Luvvie Ajayi fixed her mouth to speak negatively about singer Tevin Campbell. Keep in mind; no one was checking for Campbell before Ajayi even unleashed her opinions on him. Even during the battle, African-American responders were only bringing up the same three songs Campbell released during his debut album, showing that folks who were claiming that they were Tevin superfans actually weren’t. (Quiet as it’s kept, Campbell’s most popular songs are those three or four he released in his debut album when he was a teen and his Powerline jams from A Goofy Movie. Not many people bought his subsequent albums.) But regardless, people used Ajayi’s opinions on Campbell to take her to task for previous grievances they had against her, which launched an ADOS (African Descendants of Slaves) vs. African immigrant showdown. An unnecessary one at that.
I’m bringing this up because just like Luvvie-gate, Abishola entered the Diaspora Wars fray in an unexpected way. She was called to the school because Dele hit the Mrs. Lester’s son, an African-American. But, the boy called Dele a “jungle b****.” The slur harkens back to the myriad of slurs African-Americans have called Africans. But on the flip side, African immigrants have also called African-Americans all types of names too.
Thankfully, Abishola isn’t one of those African immigrants who don’t see the connective tissue between Africans and African-Americans. Instead, she tells the mother that this type of verbal violence, which Mrs. Lester tries to brush off as just mere insults, shouldn’t even be happening. Even though Dele was wrong for slamming a chair into the other boy, who can blame him when he’s being assaulted with a slur? (Not Abishola, who told Mrs. Lester that if she called Abishola a “jungle b****,” she would probably hit her too.)
- I personally like that the show decided to make a distinction between someone being on the autism spectrum versus someone being a jerk.
Their wing’s doctor (Ivar Brogger), callously called the time of death of a patient, while Abishola and Gloria cringed at his lack of empathy. After he left, Gloria said to Abishola, “They say he’s on the spectrum, but I think he’s just a dick.”
I’m sure some people might take umbrage with that statement. In full disclosure, I don’t have autism. But I do have clinical depression and anxiety problems. And I’ve realized that discussions about both neurodivergence and mental illness is rife with a lack of nuance. Too often, people perpetuate this notion that if you are diagnosed with a mental condition, everything you do has to be accepted. I don’t subscribe to that. Having a diagnosis doesn’t automatically make you a jerky person. Yes, some symptoms of autism can make someone seem hard to read or even rude, but there’s also the fact that having autism or any other mental condition doesn’t go hand-in-hand with being, well, a dick.
There are people with autism who have great empathy—in fact, I’d say all people with autism have greater amounts of empathy than people give them credit for. And because they know they have problems reading certain social cues, people with autism often have greater sensitivity to social mores. So, could the doctor have autism? Most definitely. But could he extend some bedside manner to his patients, dead or alive? I’d say he has a great capacity to do so.
Overall, I found Bob Hearts Abisholato be a delightful and insightful addition to CBS’ slate of comedies. Hopefully, if the show is wildly successful, it’ll make CBS more at ease diving into other narratives that don’t often get a shot on their network. Let’s hope Bob Hearts Abishola is the start of a new day at CBS.