The romantic pairing of a Nigerian woman and a white American man may once have seemed an unlikely premise for a sitcom, but thanks to a television audience increasingly used to interracial romance in real life, it has translated into a hit for the CBS series "Bob Hearts Abishola."
Now in its second season, the show explores culture through the courtship of cardiac nurse Abishola, played by Folake Olowofoyeku, and a middle-aged businessman Bob Wheeler, a Detroit factory owner, played by Mike & Molly star Billy Gardell.
In the first season, the two main characters meet while Bob is recovering in the hospital from a heart attack. Immediately smitten, Bob pursues a romantic relationship with Abishola but must overcome her disinterest and navigate their cultural differences.
At the beginning of the second season, which started in November, the couple gets engaged. However, walking down the aisle is far from certain. Obstacles lie ahead, including the fact that Abishola is still married to her estranged husband who still lives in Nigeria.
Olowofoyeku spoke with BET.com about fan reaction to the show and how this unconventional pairing actually makes perfect sense.
BET.com: Bob and Abishola come from two different worlds. What do they see in each other?
Folake Olowofoyeku: They are both in charge of caring and the upkeep of their families. They provide something that’s missing in each other’s life.
Abishola has always approached life in a determined and focused way — no room for fun, mostly work, work, work. Very driven. Bob also has that same mentality.
What she finds in him is the fun that’s missing in her life, and what he finds in her is the strength and support that’s missing in his life.
BET.com: Abishola and Gloria, the Black American nurse on the show (Vernee Watson), often have nuanced and witty exchanges that highlight their own cultural differences. What should a Black American audience understand about Nigerian culture when it comes to dating and marriage?
Olowofoyeku: That’s a loaded question for me because I was never into tradition. Also, I can’t speak for every Nigerian. I can only speak from my experience and things that I’ve heard.
Some families are more traditional than others. Some families practice polygamy, some families practice arranged marriages, and there are some families that practice child marriages. There are some people who go so far as to say you must marry someone from the same tribe or the same village. So, there is a broad range.
I don’t come from a family that’s involved in my romantic life. Yet, I know that is something that’s common at the same time. I think traditionally, for Nigerian families, if we are going way back to pre-colonial times, a lot of stock was placed into the future generation and what was going to come out of a union. It was like a royal family, in a way. And some people have carried that practice over. And some beliefs are a little bit more modern. They believe in love, which is what the show is focused on portraying.
BET.com: The show maintains its Nigerian authenticity and finds a way to connect with an American audience really well. How'd you discover this happy medium?
Olowofoyeku: What we try to focus on is the general experience of a Nigerian immigrant in America. Gina Yashere (who plays Abishola’s best friend, Kemi) pulls from her experience as a first-generation Nigerian growing up in England.
Speaking from the perspective of an actor, I went to college in America, and before that, I grew up in Nigeria and went to boarding school. I fuse all my experiences into my character. What I try to focus on is merging those two worlds.
I studied acting here in America. That means I understand the rhythms of American speech in the way to deliver jokes.
When I’m delivering a line, for instance, if I were with my Nigerian friends, hanging out and talking casually with a Nigerian accent, you probably wouldn’t understand what I was saying. I can’t come on the show and portray Abishola that way because you would need subtitles. But it’s important that she keeps the authentic Nigerian accent.
It resonates with an American audience because there has been a huge cry for diverse content for a long time. America is a melting pot. There are so many cultures here. I think people are happy to see something fresh, something full of love, heartfelt.
And Nigerian-Americans love it. They absolutely love it. And it’s not just Nigerian immigrants. It’s also immigrants in general, like Caribbeans. It also mirrors their experience. That’s the beautiful thing about the show. It crosses cultures.
What I hear a lot is that it’s a feel-good family show. You walk away with a smile on your face. It’s a breath of fresh air for a lot of people. The focus is love, and no one can argue with love. Everyone wants love.
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BET.com: Why didn’t the show address George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter protests, and how has the police killings of Floyd and others like Breonna Taylor impacted you personally?
Olowofoyeku: There is so much going on in the world right now. The murder of George Floyd, I was greatly affected by it. I went to numerous marches.
There are heavy things that we are dealing with in the world. I think Chuck (the show’s creator and executive producer Chuck Lorre) and the producers and writers decided that they wanted the show to be an escape. They wanted it to focus on love, an aspiration of what we want the world to be. That’s why they made that decision.
I’m very passionate about advocacy. I just don’t like anything unfair in general, from the smallest to the largest. I’ve looked for causes to support back in Nigeria and here in America, and that’s ongoing.
I made it a point to support in any way I could: whether it was a simple retweet to inform my friends about what’s going on in the world or going out there (to protest).
One of those days we had the largest turn out for a George Floyd march here in L.A. And there were numerous other ones where we’ve marched. I was there as well. I’m still finding my way in the world with this passion that I have, trying to find the best way to support, to give back and to use my platform for equality.
BET.com: Each cast member brings a passion and authenticity to their role. What’s the best part about working with them?
Olowofoyeku: Everyone is such a pro. Welcome to the Chuck Lorre universe. I was told how fortunate I was to come into the game with this particular group of people, and I've noticed that. It’s obvious from the level that everybody performs: the writers, the directors, the producers. It’s a great ensemble. It’s a good place to learn the business.
I’m picking up as much as I can from Billy because he’s obviously a veteran with Mike & Molly. We show up and everyone is on top of their game. It’s a beautiful place to be.
BET.com: Can you share a little bit about what fans can expect in upcoming episodes. Will Bob and Abishola actually get married?
Olowofoyeku: Well, I don't know. We only shoot a few episodes at a time. We don’t get our script until a few days before we start shooting. So, I am going to be just as surprised as you guys, to find out if Bob and Abishola finally do get married and where they get married. I know I have my wish list for them.
I would love us to pack up and go to Nigeria and shoot a couple of episodes there. It would be marvelous if we could shoot the entire wedding in Nigeria because weddings in Nigeria take several days. That would be great.
I’ll tell you though, it starts to get a little intense in the next few episodes. I think this show is groundbreaking in so many ways; not only is it the first Nigerian-American TV show in America, but it’s also a hybrid. It’s not just a sitcom. There is also an intense amount of drama and authenticity in the storyline. You are going to see those coming up in the next few episodes.
Watch "Bob Hearts Abishola" on CBS.com and catch future episodes on Mondays at 8:30 p.m. EST/7:30 p.m. C on CBS.