As a respite from the summertime rerun doldrums, ABC is offering up something that's completely, well, weird. But good weird.
"Maximum Bob," which premieres Tuesday at 9 p.m. on Ch. 4, comes to us from the same pair that collaborated on the movie "Get Shorty" - it's based on a book by Elmore Leonard and it's directed (at least the pilot) by Barry Sonnenfeld, whose other credits include "The Addams Family" and "Men in Black."Imagine a warm-weather "Northern Exposure" set in a small Florida town populated by eccentrics. But not just benign weirdos - some of these folks seem to have migrated from "Twin Peaks."
And at the center of all this lunacy is "Maximum Bob" Gibbs (Beau Bridges) himself - a hard-line, small-town judge with delusions of grandeur and a complete lack of political correctness.
In the opener, he basically sentences a young man to death for drinking a beer.
And Bridges clearly relishes the part, which he plays to the hilt, having been urged by Sonnenfeld to do so.
"Barry encouraged me," Bridges said. "He said, `Go for it - you've got an outrageous guy there.' So I can get about as crazy as I can get because there's a lot of people . . . that can put me in line when I get too crazy."
His main nemesis is Kathy Baker (Liz Vassey), the new public defender who can't quite believe what she's seeing or hearing. Not that she's a shrinking violet - just ask the cop she has an encounter with on her way into town.
There's also the fairly normal town sheriff (Sam Robards), who, nonetheless, seems to have an obsession with ballroom dancing.
And Bob has plenty of company on the odd side. In the pilot episode, the corpulent male lover of the man Bob sentences to death kidnaps the judge's psychic wife, Leanne (Kiersten Warren), a former synchronized-swimming "mer-maid" whom Bob would just as soon be rid of at the moment anyway.
And viewers become acquainted with a family of inbred hillbillies - the Crowes - who ought to frighten the heck out of any sane person.
The show uses Leonard's book as a jumping off point, but this is not a very close adaptation of his work. Leonard has, however, given his cooperation and blessing to the project, allowing writer/executive producer Alex Gansa the "incredible pleasure to be able to plagiarize with impunity."
"Elmore Leonard's dialogue and characters are so wonderful and they're so rich," Gansa said. "But at the same time I wanted to make sure that we brought an audience back each week and that there was a level of sort of sweetness that didn't exist in the book so people would want to invite these characters back into their living room each week. There was a conscious effort to sort of lighten up the darkness a little bit.
"The way I like to put it is if there's a cancer in the book, it's malignant. And if there's a cancer in the series, it's benign."
To that end, Bob isn't anywhere near as ruthless as he was in the book.
"Because we're, hopefully, looking for a long life for this show, he is at least grounded enough to where you're going to want to see him every week," Bridges said. "And I think that he is a man who can learn a lesson. And, even though he may be politically incorrect and kind of a borderline terror in some areas, if he can be made to learn, it's OK."
And Bridges isn't particularly concerned about carrying the character too far over the top.
"You always worry about doing too much. You don't want to be accused of chewing the scenery," he said. "But when you get the green light, hey, go for it. You don't have too many times in your career when you can get that wild and crazy."
"Maximum Bob" is, in many ways, a big goof. In many scenes, the show's connection to reality is tenuous at best - whether it's the town's mad bomber running around blowing up every vehicle he can or a bizarrely agile alligator chasing Leanne across the back yard, through the back door and into the kitchen.
And, while there are obviously animatronics involved there, there's also a real, live reptile just feet away from Warren.
"The alligator is literally down there. And they growl when they get kind of angry," Warren said. "And there's a moment when you look down and you really realize, `I'm in my underwear and that's a real alligator.' And it's very surreal."
And almost as absurd as "Maximum Bob" itself.
"Oh, I think we crossed that line a long time ago," Bridges said. "I think it's definitely absurd."
But that's the secret of the show's charm. It's so stunningly odd you may sit there with your mouth open, but it's not boring.
Whether the producers can keep this up for the seven episodes that will air this summer - or if the show gets picked up after that - remains to be seen. (The second episode is good but not as good as the premiere.)
But for at least a while, "Maximum Bob" is a welcome relief to the boring reruns that make up most of summertime TV viewing.
HITCHCOCKIAN: Pay attention at the beginning of Tuesday debut of "Maximum Bob" and you'll catch a glimpse of director/executive producer Barry Sonnenfeld.
In the opening scene, he's the guy on the left wearing a flowered shirt and glasses with his face pressed to the glass in the mermaid tank. And he's waving frantically to warn Leanne that there's an alligator on her tail.
You just have to watch in order for it to make any sense.