‘Max Headroom’ and the digital future of the past


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Susan King writes on classic Hollywood and the home-video shelf for Hero Complex. Today she reconsiders a memorable talking head from the 1980s.

Set “Twenty minutes into the future,” the ABC series Max Headroom is now 23 years in the past.

And on Tuesday, Shout! Factory is releasing all 14 episodes from the short-lived sci-fi-thriller-social-commentary. The series began with a bang -- it premiered Tuesday, March 31, 1987 right after the “Moonlighting” episode in which Dave and Maddie finally get horizontal -- but it went out quietly on Oct. 16 of that year after losing the Friday-night ratings battle with “Dallas” and “Miami Vice.”

There was a time during the 1980s where you couldn’t escape the character of Max Headroom. The computer simulated personality hosted his own video music show and was a pitchman for Coke.


Created for British television by George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton and starring Matt Frewer as Max, the character was known for his quick wit and electronically stuttering sampled voice. But before “The Max Headroom” video music show first aired, “Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future,” a movie that filled in the back-story for Max was broadcast in England in 1985. It was on that movie that the ABC series would be based.

Frewer played Edison Carter, an ace reporter for Network 23 who is always trying to uncover injustices, greed and corruption. He learns that “blipverts,” a form of subliminal advertising on Network 23 can cause death to viewers. While fleeing the bad guys on his motorcycle, he suffers a severe head injury on the low-clearance sign “Max Headroom.” Believing Edison to be dead, Network 23 orders the channel’s boy genius scientist Bryce to digitally record Carter’s mind so they can create a computerized version of Carter. But there’s a glitch in the hardware and the wise-cracking Max has a mind of his own and keeps popping up on TV commenting on anything that comes to his mind.

The movie and a six-week run of video music show aired here on Cinemax. Then the series based on the movie came to America with Frewer playing Edison and Max; Amanda Pays, from the original movie, as his producer Theora Jones; W. Morgan Sheppard, also from the original, as Blank Reg who is a friend of Edison who runs the underground network from his bus. Jeffrey Tambor played Murray, Edison’s boss, and Chris Young played the brain-boy Bryce.

I remember being mesmerized with “Max Headroom,” even getting the opportunity to interview Frewer the day after the premiere. Set in a world that was part cyber-punk and part “Blade Runner,” the series somehow transformed L.A. into a dark, dank metropolis filled with the wealthy and the disenfranchised living on the fringe. It was a world run by corporations, a world where ratings were everything. Maybe the transformation wasn’t that tricky after all.

But, watching the show from a 21st century vantage point, this long-gone vision of the future is not quite as compelling as you would hope. Time hasn’t been kind to “Max Headroom.” Though the computer scenes are fun, it all seems a bit clunky now. There was a vague feeling in the 1980s about the way digital culture might manifest, but now that we’ve seen the real thing, “Headroom” is a quirky time capsule, a “Jetsons” with some scenes of peril and MTV production values. Worst of all, that “Blade Runner” ambiance seems less like innovative TV than a “been there, done that” sort of thing.

Still, it’s fun to watch Max pop up and crack wise. The character’s look was achieved with makeup and prosthetics not CG, and you know that will change if (or is it that “when”?) there’s a remake. Frewer and Pays also have a nice rapport. Frewer, whose work in “Headroom” seemed to mightily influence a young Canadian comic named Jim Carrey, popped up recently with an inspired cameo as Molach in Zack Snyder’sWatchmen.” London native Pays, meanwhile, would be back on television in the superhero series “The Flash” and appear in a memorable episode of “The X-Files in 1993. Of course, Tambor, recently seen in the “Hellboy” films, is always fun to watch and Sheppard’s mohawked Blank Reg seems like he stepped off the set of “The Road Warrior.”

The fifth disc is devoted to some terrific extras, including “Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom” and “Looking Back at the Future,” which is a round-table discussion among Pays, Tambor, Young and Concetta Tomei, who played Blank Reg’s companion. There’s also “Producing Dystopia,” which finds producer Brian Frankish talking about the insanity that revolved around making the series; and “The Writers Remember,” a conversation between executive story editor Steve Roberts and story editor Michael Cassutt.

-- Susan King


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