Can an American TV sitcom get anything ‘right’ about Nigerians?

After having a heart attack, a white American falls in love with his Nigerian nurse in the CBS TV sitcom, Bob Hearts Abishola. It is also about Nigerian-Americans’ visibility on mainstream US television.

Promo image from Bob Hearts Abishola.

When American TV network, CBS, first announced that its TV sitcom Bob Hearts Abishola would feature a Nigerian protagonist, a sense of dread came over many Nigerians concerned with their country’s representation in the western media. Just starting with the name “Abishola”—or, rather, its spelling—the title of the show struck many as questionable. Why the “h,” when “Abisola” is arguably far more common? And how could Bob Hearts Abishola, a Chuck Lorre sitcom, possibly get anything “right” about Nigeria and Nigerians? Lorre, known for blockbuster sitcoms (including The Big Bang Theory), is not often associated with nuance.

Nigeria is, on American television, typically reduced to subplots about internet fraud (419 jokes) and other references to, allegedly, endemic Nigerian corruption—when the country is cited at all. Depictions of Nigerian scams have proliferated in British and American popular culture, strengthening racist stereotypes. For instance, the pilot episode of the television series Leverage (2008)—titled “The Nigerian Job”—suggests that all Nigerians are corrupt. Similarly, the Futurama spin-off film Bender’s Big Score (2007) uses a dreaded Nigerian internet scam as a source of terror, pity, and apparent hilarity.

For its part, however, the HBO comedy series Flight of the Conchords (2007 – 2009) satirizes the sort of stereotyping that feeds anti-Nigerian prejudice: when the eponymous band’s lovably inept manager, Murray (Rhys Darby), enlists the help of a Nigerian investor, Nigel Saladu (Michael Potts), the other characters assume that Saladu is a 419 schemer, and that the disastrously dim-witted Murray has managed to err once again—this time in a really big way. In the end, however, Saladu emerges as a hero, having demonstrated his keen investment skills and earned a much-needed windfall for Murray and the band. In Flight of the Conchords, essentializing Nigerians as corrupt can only lead to shame and embarrassment for those peddling such parochial views.

Set in Detroit, Bob Hearts Abishola is about the “unlikely” romance that develops between a white businessman (played by Billy Gardell, the Mike of Lorre’s earlier sitcom Mike & Molly) and the Nigerian nurse he meets while a cardiac patient. Played by Nigerian-born actress Folake Olowofoyeku, Abishola recalls Saladu in her hyper-competence, which puts the other characters—including, memorably, the physician with whom she, a “mere” nurse, works—to shame. (Abishola knows better than the doctor and isn’t afraid to say so, and her willingness to intervene—to act on her hard-won knowledge—saves a patient’s life.) Olowofoyeku—a Nigerian performer playing a Nigerian role—is among the selling points of the series, and she is matched by two other actors of Nigerian descent, Shola Adewusi (who plays Abishola’s meddlesome aunt, and whose rabble rousing comedy style recalls that of Nollywood icon Funke Akindele) and Gina Yashere (who plays Abishola’s closest friend, an incorrigible gossip).

Bob Hearts Abishola does not pretend that African immigrants speak only English, and the series is full of subtitled Yorùbá, featuring, as well, some welcome discussions on the intricacies of the language. The program is very much an advertisement for “low” culture—a mere sitcom that is somehow more respectable, more accurate and evocative, than those strenuously “serious” accounts of “Africa,” like Netflix’s Beasts of No Nation (which can’t even be bothered to identify its national setting even as it makes ample use of Twi).

At its best, Bob Hearts Abishola evokes the Nigerian sitcom tradition, particularly in scenes set in Abisola’s crowded home, which recall Amaka Igwe’s Fuji House of Commotion, a spin-off of Igwe’s popular television serial Checkmate. Tambay Obenson has eloquently described what Bob Hearts Abishola does so well, noting that Gina Yashere was instrumental in the development and execution of the series. Hired as a consultant, Yashere eventually earned a credit as the sitcom’s co-creator, and her oversight pays some obvious dividends: indebted to Bridget Loves Bernie (1972-1973) and other clash-of-cultures sitcoms, Bob Hearts Abishola avoids egregious misrepresentations of Nigeria—including those for which non-Nigerian actors (like Concussion’s Will Smith) have been notoriously responsible.

I expected to detest Bob Hearts Abishola, but I was surprised by how much I liked the first six episodes. The series is full of Yorùbá, and it’s not nearly as exoticizing as typical American accounts of African characters. I tweeted some praise, then deleted the post as soon as I noticed that many users were upset about the show—because of a (rather funny) parody of African chauvinism: there is a memorable scene in which two African-born characters “troll” their African-American friend (played by the great Vernee Watson-Johnson) by suggesting that they would date African-American men only as a last resort. Watson-Johnson’s lively character gives as good as she gets, however, critiquing the immigrants’ stereotype-driven hierarchy even as all three women share a hearty laugh over the difficulties of dating and the quest for sex.

As of this writing, over 3,000 people have signed a Change.org petition demanding that CBS cancel Bob Hearts Abishola on the basis of the sitcom’s alleged anti-African-American bias, which, the petition’s author maintains, “supports the ongoing narrative being proliferated in mainstream media today, that African immigrants are a more desirable class of ‘blacks’ in America than American Descendants Of Slavery.” What the author appears to ignore is the role of two-time Emmy-Award-winner Vernee Watson-Johnson as Gloria, the receptionist at the hospital where Abishola works: as cutting as she is wise, Gloria goes out of her way to mentor the much-younger Abishola in what amounts to a lovely depiction not merely of inter-generational intimacy but also of cross-cultural exchange.

The Change.org petition also claims that Bob Hearts Abishola is being “presented to a predominantly white network audience”—an unsupported assumption that is difficult to maintain at a time of significant demographic shifts, particularly in relation to the medium of television and the platforms on which it is watched.

Bob Hearts Abishola begs the question “Why Nigerians?”—and the answer is perhaps obvious: as the global popularity of Nollywood films, and their growing presence on platforms like Amazon and Netflix, attests, Nigerians are major consumers of popular media, and it makes sense that CBS would target them. Indeed, I know a lot of Nigerian-born Americans who are not only watching Bob Hearts Abishola (on whatever device) but who are also enjoying it—and who are marveling at the extensive use of Yorùbá on an American network sitcom.

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