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Maximum Bob is Maximum Bad

Professor Johnny Burris, Nova Southeastern University Law Center (September, 1998)

ABC’s late summer television series Maximum Bob is very loosely based on Elmore Leonard's quirky 1991 novel of the same name. The television series chronicles life in the rural southern Florida town of Deep Water (the novel was set in Palm Beach County) and its unusual circuit court judge, Bob Gibbs, who is also known as “Maximum Bob” or “Big.”

Judge Gibbs, portrayed by Beau Bridges, is a self-centered, corrupt, politically incorrect, sexual harassing, law-and-order judge who dominates the local political and social scene. In various episodes, he has accepted a bribe in the form of a contribution to his campaign for governor in exchange for ruling in the defendant's favor in a civil case and unsuccessfully lusted after defense attorney Kathy Baker.  Gibbs takes great joy in imposing the maximum sentence on those convicted in his courtroom. This proclivity earned him the nickname Maximum Bob,” hence the title of the novel and television series. Judge Gibbs is also a man of great ambition.  He wants to become Governor of Florida and he does not hesitate to use and abuse his judicial office to aid him in fulfilling this ambition.

Judge Gibbs has two female protagonists. Kathy Baker, portrayed by Liz Vassey, is a sophisticated liberal Miami defense attorney who comes to Deep Water to represent a man in a parole violation hearing before Judge Gibbs and inexplicably decides to stay. It should be noted that in Leonard's novel, Kathy Baker was a probation officer. Apparently this role in the justice system was too tame for the television show, and so the character was upgraded to an attorney. While it appears attorney Baker is supposed to bring Judge Gibbs up short, she in fact does not do so. In court, she specializes in losing cases over which Judge Gibbs presides. For example, in the first episode attorney Baker is horrified when Judge Gibbs sentences her client to death by electrocution in "old sparky" for violating his parole by drinking one beer. Nonetheless, the show assumes attorney Baker is a serious thorn in Judge Gibbs' side.

The second protagonist, Leanne Baker, portrayed by Kiersten Warren, is Judge Gibbs’s spouse. She is an unusual free spirit and source of vexation for Judge Gibbs, because she is periodically possessed by the spirit of Wanda Grace, a 12-year-old African American girl who was a slave before the Civil War. This causes Judge Gibbs some very embarrassing moments, such as when this spirit emerges during a press conference concerning his governorship quest. Each week Leanne Baker also has misadventures with other supporting characters in the show.

The town of Deep Water is also populated by some uncommon supporting characters including a good-hearted and love-sick sheriff who lusts after Kathy Baker, a group of inept sheriff deputies, and the Crowe family, a bizarre anti-social group that reminds me of a moneyless Clampett family (from The Beverly Hillbillies, which aired from 1962-71) with criminal traits. Each week these characters are supposed to provide interesting diversions from the main story line. 

Maximum Bob is supposed to be a humorous show. It is using a formula, the urban rural conflict, that reminds me of "Northern Exposure" (which aired from 1990-95). Unfortunately, Maximum Bob lacks the polish and wit of Northern Exposure. Most of the episodes are so poorly edited it is difficult to follow the story line. If you had read Leonard's novel you would be able to overcome some of the editing problems by filling in the gaps with information from his book. But this becomes less true with each passing episode, as the show wanders further and further from the plot line in the book. Even if the show were better executed, I ultimately find that Judge Gibbs' conflicts with his spouse and attorney Baker fall flat. The adventures of the other unusual characters inhabiting Deep Water also give one little reason to be amused.  In short, Maximum Bob is just not funny. It has more in common with the cartoon-like "The Dukes of Hazzard" (which aired from 1979-85) than the more sophisticated humor of Northern Exposure.

The show also lacks even a quasi-realistic feel in its legal proceedings. One would expect more in a show that features a circuit court judge as its central character and at least one or two courtroom scenes in each episode. In Maximum Bob, the law and the legal system are treated merely as background, a stage where Judge Gibbs offers offensive commentary which is supposed to be humorous. For that reason, whenever the show moves to the courtroom it seems as if Judge Gibbs is doing a brief stand-up comedy routine rather than presiding over any type of legal proceeding. For example, in one episode attorney Baker brings a civil lawsuit on behalf of her male client seeking his reinstatement as a member of a mermaid swimming show. In the courtroom scene Judge Gibbs makes a sexist speech defending the right of the mermaid show operator to have a female-only cast and dismisses the lawsuit. Attorney Baker says almost nothing during this legal proceeding. While this type of scene may in some feeble way advance the show's plot, it lacks all credibility in the way it portrays the legal system.

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