Here's how Robert Zemeckis sees the CBS series "Johnny Bago" fitting into the pantheon of television shows:
"If you can imagine a Ralph Kramden of the '90s mixed with `The Fugitive,' `Route 66' and `On the Road with Charles Kuralt,' that's what `Johny Bago' is sort of like," said Zemeckis the movie director who's the co-creator, co-executive producer and director of the pilot episode of "Bago." "We like to call it sort of an exploration of random America."Trying to describe the show isn't easy. But here's an easy summary - Friday's pilot episode (9 p.m., Ch. 5) is a television gem. It's offbeat, charming and very funny.
In the premiere, we meet Johnny Tenuti (Peter Dobson), a young mob wannabe who's in prison for a crime he didn't commit. About to be released, the warden kindly offers Johnny advice that, as an ex-con, he can only expect a miserable life to unfold for him.
And it sure looks like that's the way things are headed. He quickly learns that his new parole officer is his ex-wife (Rose Abdo), a gun-toting - albeit very funny - shrew who now lives to make Johnny's life miserable.
And that's not even the worst of it. Soon Johnny is set up as the fall guy for a gangland killing, putting him on the run from not only his
ex-wife and the law but the mob as well.
It may not sound particularly comedic, but everything here is wonderfully off-kilter. When home video of Johnny holding the murder weapon and standing over the victim is splashed all over TV, he races home to his mother to find her in tears - not because she's distraught, but because she's so proud that her little boy is following in the footsteps of his father, a deceased hitman.
Through a quirk of fate - and some delightfully quirky writing - Johnny ends up in a Winnebago (hence his new name) with a wacky old guy who takes him in. And Johnny is off on a series of adventures.
Don't be fooled by the fact that this is a summer series. This is one of the best hours of television you'll see at any time of the year.
(And don't forget that "Northern Exposure" started out as a summer show, too.)
Dobson is perfect as sweet, naive and none-too-bright Johnny, a small-time crook with a heart of gold who suddenly finds himself in way over his head.
And Abdo is a loud, shrill delight in her television debut.
The staff is replete with a whole 'nother set of stars. Zemeckis, whose many hit films include "Who Framed Roger Rabbit?," is joined by scriptwriters Peter Seaman and Jeffrey Price, who wrote "Roger," and producers Frank Marshall and Steve Starkey, who produced it - along with lots of other hits.
The biggest concern is that a subsequent episode, which CBS will air two weeks from Friday, is not up to the quality of the pilot. It's not bad, it just isn't as good as the premiere.
But if they can come anywhere close to maintaining the quality of this pilot, "Johnny Bago" could be around for longer than just this summer.
SELLING `JOHNNY': Zemickis, Marshall and Co. went to great lengths to sell "Johnny Bago."
"When we went to pitch it, we decided that we would like to do something a little different and have a little bit of fun," Marshall said.
So they contacted the programming chiefs at ABC, CBS, NBC and Fox and told them each to be out in front of their offices at 12:30 p.m. on a different day, without telling them why.
"And we pulled up in a giant Winnebago and the door opened and we're all sitting inside," Marshall said.
They served the network honchos the pasta Johnny craved while in prison - tagliatelle alla Bolognese.
"So we sort of acted it out and gave them lunch at the same time," Marshall said. "They were very nervous. They thought that maybe they were getting kidnapped or something."
As it turned out, they got a positive response from all four programmers and a series commit-ment from CBS.
"We figured if we wanted to do this (show), we might as well try and do something that might become like an old Hollywood TV legend," Zemeckis said.
QUOTABLE: Rose Abdo, on her role as Johnny Bago's ex-wife:
"I loved when Bob (Zemickis) said at the first meeting we had that it was kind of a Ralph Kramden of the '90s, because I've always wanted to be Alice Kramden. . . . So I felt like, OK, I'm Alice with a gun."