Saturday, September 21, 2019

TV REVIEW: CBS' 'Bob Hearts Abishola'

CBS will debut its new original comedy series Bob Hearts Abishola on Monday, September 23 at 8:30/7:30c. following the premiere of The Neighborhood. The comedy stars Billy Gardell, Folake Olowofoyeku, Christine Ebersole, Matt Jones, Maribeth Monroe, Vernee Watson, Shola Adewusi, Barry Shabaka Henley, Travis Wolfe Jr. and Gina Yashere.

Read on for my thoughts on the new comedy after screening its first three episodes.

In this current political environment, immigration has become such a viscerally ugly and divisive issue. It's something that has created such fiery reactions from both sides regarding the humanity or lack thereof within the actual policies. At the heart of it all though are the immigrants themselves. They are traveling to the United States in pursuit of a better life. One full of opportunities they may not have elsewhere. These stories can absolutely be inspiring. As such, it may be required by the television medium to tell more of them to help inform public opinion. Immigrants add to the cultural experience of this country. They are steady hands within our economy. They have families, loves and concerns just like anyone else. That humanity needs to be on display. It also doesn't need to come with some outwardly political messaging. It doesn't solely need to be the story about the various crises currently happening within our politics. It can still showcase the human experience and how immigrants should be seen in the world. In fact, CBS' new comedy Bob Hearts Abishola fundamentally wants to be a love story between a white businessman and a Nigerian immigrant. They come from wildly different backgrounds. And yet, the yearning for further connection can be a powerful driver of stories. Sure, there is some fairly broad material happening within these stories as well. Chuck Lorre is a prolific and successful creator. The Big Bang Theory just wrapped its run after twelve seasons on the air - most of them as the top rated comedy. Meanwhile, The Kominsky Method is currently up for a number of awards. Plus, Mom and Young Sheldon have already been renewed for multiple seasons. This business wants to produce the content coming from Lorre. Right now, he too is interested in telling stories about people who don't often get their stories shared onscreen. He does so by trying to make their concerns apparent through a universal appeal. It's a structure that has the potential of working in a really rewarding way. There are just some pains and struggles getting to that in the early going.

The series opens with Billy Gardell's Bob being wheeled into the emergency room with a heart attack. To perfectly encapsulate the tone of this series, it should be noted that there is a fart joke within the first 30 seconds of the premiere. It's not even a good fart joke. Shortly after that though, Bob meets Folake Olowofoyeku's Abishola. He oversees a family-run business making compression socks. She is a nurse in the cardiac wing of the local hospital. She helps him in his immediate recovery. He latches onto her as an almost angelic figure who saves his life. It all has the potential of being beautiful. The show just runs into some problems by embracing some of the stalker aspects of its main premise. Bob is enamored with Abishola right away. He keeps showing up at the hospital and inserting himself into her life. Her world is full of so much as well. She is living with her aunt (Shola Adewusi) and uncle (Barry Shabaka Henley) while raising her son (Travis Wolfe Jr.). She has a high-stress job in which her actions lead to life-or-death results. And now, she has this man continually talking about how her socks are no good and she deserves a pair of his superior product. Of course, he actually happens to be right in that regard. Everyone quickly falls in love with the sock guy who improves their lives. It just has to be seen as a more delicate story about cultural expectations and the roles these two individuals must fulfill in their respective families. Now, it's much easier to invest in what's going on in Abishola's life than it is with Bob's. Christine Ebersole, Matt Jones and Maribeth Monroe play his mother and siblings, respectively. They are all playing things as broadly as possible without really delving into any potential humanity. It mostly just creates the reassurance that Bob is the best person to come out from this corner of the world. That can be heartening even though it may not create for the best possible version of storytelling in the future.

In fact, some viewers may look at Bob Hearts Abishola as one big missed opportunity. At first glance, it presents as a chance for Lorre and Gardell to work together again after Mike & Molly. That former CBS comedy was always a reliable performer if never a critical or commercial success. It did earn Melissa McCarthy an Emmy though. That's notable. With any luck, the same may hopefully be said for Olowofoyeku who is absolutely terrific in one of the starring roles. She is a relative newcomer brought in to bring a sense of authenticity to the part. So much of the narrative burden is resting on her and she shines exceptionally. All of Abishola's friends and family members come across as characters who haven't been seen before. As such, a potentially better version of the show may have just been focusing on the Nigerian immigrant community as they hope to create successful futures for themselves. That isn't a story often told - if ever. Lorre did the right thing in delving deep into the talent pool to find stand-up comedian Gina Yashere, who helped him and his frequent collaborators write the script for the pilot. She too is very impressive. She also appears in a supporting role as Kemi, one of Abishola's friends at the hospital. Again, the humor that comes from a different cultural experience is refreshing and earned. Meanwhile, the ongoing hilarity with Bob's family comes across as trite and familial. These aren't unsolvable problems. It's just clear where the focus is and rightfully belongs in the first three episodes. With a little more specificity and confidence, then something magical could happen here. However, the show would have to be a little more frank with some of the dark connotations that are being implied with the core relationship. The third episode is a slight improvement in that regard which may hint at the show already learning how to expand the scope of its ambitions.