So, a disclaimer at the outset: I’m pretty much the target audience for Bob (Hearts) Abishola. That’s because I’m a sucker for any comedy produced by Chuck Lorre — you know, the guy who flashes little messages to the audience on his vanity cards. Lorre is merely responsible for The Big Bang Theory, Two And a Half Men, The Kominsky Method, Dharma & Greg, Mike & Molly, Grace Under Fire, Cybill, and Mom. He’s the most successful comedy producer of our time. Seeing his name in the opening credits, to me, is like slapping a sticker on the show that says “GUARANTEED LOLS.”
But here’s the setup: Bob is a compression-sock manufacturer in Detroit. He has a heart attack. While recovering, he falls hard for his Nigerian nurse, Abishola. Eleven episodes later, they have a kiss. It’s not even that romantic a kiss.
In other words, it’s a slow build, one seemingly better suited to a streaming show like Kominsky Method. TV networks like CBS prefer fast-percolating episodes that can air in almost any order. That’s why Dharma and Greg got married in the pilot, and why it didn’t take long for Billy Gardell’s Mike to jump in the sack with Melissa McCarthy’s Molly.
McCarthy would later jump to the movies, leaving Gardell at the altar of network television. I always thought his role on Mike & Molly was underappreciated. His deadpan delivery and stoic absorption of all those fat jokes lent real humanity to a role that could easily have been two-dimensional.
Now Gardell is back, as Bob on Bob (Hearts) Abishola. Only this time, he plays a middle-aged, divorced man with a family business to support, a less-than-supportive mom, and two dead-weight younger siblings. And rather than looking for another large-sized soulmate, Bob has eyes for an average-sized, dark-skinned woman who speaks English as her third language and, when she’s not caring for his medical needs, appears to care not a whit about him.
This is Abishola, played by Folake Olowofoyeku. She emigrated years ago with her husband, but the struggle proved to be more than their marriage could stand. He returned to Nigeria, effectively ending their union. She and the couple’s only child moved in with her Uncle Tunde and Aunt Olu. At work Abishola leans on her best friend Kemi for support. Long days, hard work, her struggle is real. Bob discovers this on their first date when, trying to make small talk, he asks if she has any hobbies.
“Nigerians don’t do useless things,” Abishola snaps.
The other unusual aspect of Bob (Hearts) Abishola is that the comedy is pretty evenly split between these American and Nigerian perspectives. The sitcom sets that get the most workouts on this show are the Nigerians’ apartment, Bob’s home, the sock factory, the hospital, and the bus Abishola and Kemi take to and from work. When the Nigerians quarrel, they sometimes switch from English to Yoruba, the language of their home tribe. And a big storyline in the show’s first 11 episodes involves a competitive suitor for Abishola, a pharmacist from another Nigerian tribe who has a successful pharmacy business, big ambitions, and an ego to match.
Some critics have charged the show with dealing in “outdated stereotypes” and promoting bigotry. This latter point isn’t obvious if you’re white, but there’s been quite a bit of chatter online about the scene in the third episode where Kemi ranked men’s ethnic backgrounds in terms of their marriage prospects ... and put African American men dead last.
This sparked a reaction from a black coworker. “You get pulled over by a cop, he's not going to see your little ranking system,” she tells Kemi. “He’s just going to see this” — and points at her skin. Kemi retorts that Africans don’t get pulled over … because they observe all traffic laws.
The ethnic discussion is lively, and in the able hands of British comedian Gina Yashere — who developed the show with Lorre and plays Kemi — the punchlines strike the funnybone rather than the gut. It’s not lost on me, or probably most viewers, that the immigrants in the shipping department at Bob’s sock factory are a lot harder-working than either Bob’s whiny sister Christina (Maribeth Monroe) or pot-smoking brother Doug (Matt Jones). Even Bob’s mom, a politically incorrect pistol played by Christine Ebersole, can see it.
For the first ten weeks that Bob (Hearts) Abishola aired on CBS, each episode ended with the same Chuck Lorre vanity card — a picture of a yellow baseball cap with IMAG in black lettering. That’s short for Immigrants Make America Great. It was why Lorre wanted to make the show in the first place, because of the moment we’re in. That’s commendable. He’s made a lot of headcheese for CBS, and it’s a credit both to his clout and the network’s faith in him that CBS rolled the dice on what I think we can all agree is the least promising Chuck Lorre sitcom setup to date.
But the whole immigrant thing is really just the sidebar to Bob (Hearts) Abishola. At the (heart) of the show is a malady that is eating away the American spirit and the soul of our land. We see it most vividly in the suicide and opioid death rates. For want of a better diagnosis, it’s a deficit in love and meaning, and it permeates the show. The only happily married couple we see are Abishola’s aunt and uncle, a wonderful pair of bickersons played by Shola Adewusi and Barry Shabaka Henley.
As Robyn Bahr astutely noted, Lorre’s sitcoms are built around people who have been broken by life in some way or another. But Bob (Hearts) Abishola is also a comedy about ambition, that train in the distance that calls out to people looking for a better life, whether in another land or with another person.
There’s a scene where Bob is about to walk out of the hospital and he turns around and watches Abishola. She’s sitting at a computer, keying in the endless data that hospital systems require, and is unaware she’s being watched. Bob just looks at her, and there’s a sad, desperate longing in his eyes, one he didn’t even know he was capable of. In that moment I was filled with gratitude that I’d found love, and I wanted these two crazy kids to find love as well, no matter how many hilarious episodes it took.
Bob (Hearts) Abishola airs its “Season 1.5” premiere at 8:30 ET tonight on CBS.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.