By Bruce Fretts
August 07, 1998 at 04:00 AM EDT

Maximum Bob

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In the opening scene of Maximum Bob, a woman in a mermaid costume consumes an entire bottle of soda while swimming underwater. Bystanders press their noses against her glass tank, their mouths agape in astonishment. Viewers may have the same reaction to Bob: It’s the strangest major-network series to come down the pike since David Lynch’s Twin Peaks.

Sharp-eyed showbiz junkies will recognize one of those amazed onlookers as Barry Sonnenfeld, who also executive-produced Bob and directed its pilot. Why is the man who made last summer’s top-grossing movie, Men in Black, shooting a seven-week summer series for ABC? The answer is, He’s having a hell of a lot of fun.

Before he hitched his wagon to Will Smith’s star (he’s currently collaborating with the former Fresh Prince on a big-screen version of TV’s The Wild, Wild West), Sonnenfeld directed Get Shorty, based on a crime novel by Elmore Leonard, whose work also inspired Bob. Until Shorty, Hollywood had never quite captured Leonard’s tangy dialogue and idiosyncratic characters (among the many misfires were Burt Reynolds’ Stick and John Frankenheimer’s 52 Pick-Up). But with Shorty, Bob, and this summer’s Out of Sight (which he executive-produced), Sonnenfeld has proven to be Leonard’s ideal adapter.

He’s certainly better suited to the task than Quentin Tarantino, whose draggy Jackie Brown (based on Leonard’s Rum Punch) lacked the novelist’s whip-crack sense of pacing. Once the Coen brothers’ cinematographer of choice, Sonnenfeld favors cartoonish colors, off-kilter camera angles, and sly sight gags that perfectly complement Leonard’s labyrinthine story lines.

Bob‘s plot is a typically twisty concoction. Beau Bridges stars as “Maximum” Bob Gibbs, a reactionary judge who dispenses draconian justice and cracker-barrel wisdom from behind his Deep Water, Fla., bench. (He’s like a redneck Judge Judy.) The narrative is too tangled to summarize in a small space, but suffice it to say it incorporates inbred identical-twin giants, the ghost of a slave girl, Fidel Castro, and an exploding basketball.

It’s questionable whether America will sympathize with the gleefully corrupt Bob, who refuses to recuse himself from the trial of his ex-wife (Lee Garlington) for importing illegal Cuban cigars because, if she’s convicted, he’ll no longer have to pay her alimony. He’s also an inveterate lecher whose behavior borders on sexual harassment, as when he tells the town’s appalled new public defender (Pig Sty‘s lovable Liz Vassey), “Counselor, you got a cute butt…like two bulldogs in a bag.” But if any actor can win over viewers, it’s Bridges, who invests Bob with blustery charm and a fundamentalist’s fervor.

Even if you don’t come to love that Bob, there are plenty of other endearing characters, including the town sheriff (Sam Robards, the son of Jason Robards and Lauren Bacall), a widower who dreams of winning the state’s amateur ballroom-dancing championship. His dance coach, who also happens to be in love with Bob’s ex-wife, is delightfully played by Miguel Sandoval (a drug lord in Shorty). Then there’s Sonny (Sam Trammell, who’ll be seen in ER exec producer John Wells’ new NBC drama, Trinity), a dim but well-meaning teen whom Bob sentences to death for drinking a beer. Don’t ask.

Bob‘s scripts, some of them penned by X-Files vet Alex Gansa, are packed with colorful one-liners. (Bob of his ex-wife: “She wants a p — -ing contest, dammit, I’ll show her a stream as strong as a horse!”) Most entertaining of all is a debate between the orchid-growing Bob and a bird-watching Mob boss (aroline in the City‘s Tom La Grua) about the relative merits of their hobbies — which takes place while Bob is tied to a chair. “Nothing beats being out in the jungle with a pair of binoculars and a birding book” insists the mafioso, whom Bob derisively nicknames Mr. Beautiful Plumage on the Male.

Bob‘s scheduled only for a limited run (although it could return with more episodes later), but this fall, we’ll see more of Sonnenfeld’s subversive humor in ABC’s remake of Fantasy Island, which he’s also executive-producing. Far from a cheesy rehash, this new Fantasy recasts Malcolm McDowell as a diabolical Mr. Roarke and features stylish, Sonnenfeldian visuals. You might call it Maximum Barry. Maximum Bob: B+

Maximum Bob

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