I was born in Nigeria to a Nigerian mother and a Cameroonian father, although I’m now a citizen of the United States. Coincidentally, I came to the U.S. the same year that “Coming to America” was released in theaters, although my experience was nothing like Prince Akeem’s, and the movie created a number of headaches for me: Schoolmates would call me Akeem and ask stupid questions like if I played with wild animals in my backyard.
The film was released at a time when American audiences had very little exposure to the varied realities of life across the African continent. The dangerously incomplete story of “Africa” that permeated the West (and quite frankly still does to some degree) was that of a helpless, homogenous mass of people — instead of an entire continent of 54 individual nations — ravaged by famine, poverty, disease, and war.
“Coming to America” further reflected that disconnect, and its comedy exploited audiences who didn’t know any better. Even Africans were entertained and humored by it — although, for them, the amusement was rooted in how ridiculous the premise and depictions of Africans were, and the stereotypes that the film played upon, compared to their own experiences as Africans in African countries, or in America.
Thirty years later, American audiences generally have been exposed to more complete and authentic accounts of African life, in part thanks to the global impact of the internet. And the increase in interest in African stories across television and film has also been of influence in increasing familiarity, especially as Africans themselves become even more active in reclaiming their narratives while targeting global audiences.
It follows then that contemporary depictions of Africans whether in Africa, America. or elsewhere — especially when created by non-Africans — must not rely on incomplete stories, or risk ridicule and censure.
Michael Yarish/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
That was a main concern I had upon first learning about the new CBS series “Bob Hearts Abishola,” which hails from award-winning creator, executive producer, and writer Chuck Lorre, known for his popular shows like “Mike & Molly,” “The Big Bang Theory,” and “Two and a Half Men.” A white American man telling a story that centers on the life of a Nigerian woman? What could go wrong? Not that it’s impossible, but Hollywood history isn’t on Lorre’s side.
New research by USC, in a study titled “Africa in the Media,” shows that Africa and Africans are mostly invisible to American television viewers. Combing through 700,000 hours of U.S. television news and entertainment programming and commercials for an entire month, the USC researchers found that Africa and Africans rarely get star billing. On scripted shows, there were just 25 major storylines about Africa during that period.
The comedic examination of immigrant life in America is billed as a love story about Bob (Billy Gardell), a middle-aged sock salesman from Detroit who unexpectedly falls for Abishola (Folake Olowofoyeku), his cardiac nurse, a Nigerian immigrant, while recovering from a heart attack. He then sets his sights on winning her over, undaunted by her lack of initial interest or the vast differences in their backgrounds.
After dismissing the series early on, I was forced to take a second look at it, at the behest of family members. They asked for my opinion on the series, given what I do for a living, wondering if it was worth checking out. I withheld criticism and encouraged them to watch and decide for themselves. They did, and they loved it — much to my chagrin — and now there’s an ongoing family email thread discussing the series and its many cultural references, which may be lost on American viewers.
So I’m now having to watch the series as well, if only to keep up with the conversation. And I must say, four episodes into the first season, some of my initial concerns have been allayed.
There is indeed an authenticity to Abishola’s story that indicates Lorre did his homework. If writing about what you don’t know, it’s your responsibility as a storyteller to do your research. And wisely, Lorre did just that. He worked with Gina Yashere, a Nigerian comedian raised in the UK, on bringing his concept to fruition. Initially hired as a consultant, Yashere became much more involved in the development of the series and is credited as a co-creator. The pair detailed how the idea for the show came about, during CBS’ TCA summer presentation.
“The story we wanted to tell is about the greatness of first generation immigrants, about the focus and discipline, the hard work, rigorous honesty that goes with coming here and grabbing ahold of the American dream,” Lorre said. “So the premise of the series is immigrants make America great.”
Michael Yarish/2019 Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc.
It’s certainly a timely message, given the escalation in anti-immigrant sentiment that the current president continues to stoke. And on the surface, given CBS’ core demo, it was likely a risky bet which Lorre said was worth taking.
“I have no idea what might the reaction be,” he said ahead of the series’ premiere, about any potential audience blowback. “This is a love story for all of us because we’re all immigrants, or we’re the children of immigrants, or the grandchildren of immigrants, or the great-grandchildren of immigrants, and it’s not a political show in that sense. It’s about people trying to get some safety in this world.”
Casting a Nigerian actress to play Abishola — a single mother who lives with her son, aunt, and uncle in a small apartment — is also a plus. Olowofoyeku brings her own real-life experiences as a Nigerian in America, to the character she portrays, further boosting the series’ authenticity, down to her very specific accent. Nigerians, specifically Yoruba people — which Abishola is a member of — will likely recognize some of their own family members in the cast of her intergenerational family, and the various scenarios captured.
The universality of its message of love is especially welcome at a time of increased intolerance globally, and younger American audiences appear to have embraced the budding romance between Bob and Abishola, even if they may not catch every cultural reference. Over 5 million viewers are tuning in every week, which makes the comedy the second-lowest rated of the network’s 2019 additions. But it’s faring much better with younger audiences in the 18-49 demo, ranking second best among freshmen CBS series, as new viewers tune in to see how the title characters from very different backgrounds will connect.
It’s a fresher and more genuine “Coming to America” narrative that should inform and entertain.
“Bob Hearts Abishola” airs at 8:30 p.m. ET on Mondays on CBS.