Shout! Factory // 1987 // 660 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Jim Thomas // August 9th, 2010
20 minutes into the future...
"How do you know if a network executive is lying?
His lips move."
It was in the mid-'80s that Max Headroom exploded on the national scene. Initially created as the host for a British music video program, Max captured the public imagination, and it wasn't long before he jumped across the pond, becoming the spokesperson to salvage the sinking ship called New Coke.
ABC, getting its brains beat out in the ratings, decided to take a flier on Max, based on a TV movie made to set up the British video program. Max hit the U.S. airwaves in 1987 to critical acclaim but weak ratings. For the second season, ABC decided to move the show to Friday night opposite Dallas and Miami Vice -- roughly equivalent to having someone soak overnight in fish entrails and then ordering them to swim through piranha-infested water. Cancellation came swift and sure.
Shout! Factory now brings us Max Headroom: The Complete Series.
In the near future, the medium literally is the message, as television networks run the world. Network 23, one of the biggest networks, is on the verge of an advertising breakthrough called "blipverts," which let the network condense a 60-second commercial down to 6 seconds, so that the commercial is over before the viewer has a chance to change the channel.
There's a teeny problem, though. In some people -- usually couch potatoes -- blipverts can result in a nervous system feedback loop, causing the body to explode. The network plans to implement blipverts anyway, because they are a critical element in retaining their biggest advertiser, ZikZak.
Enter Network 23's star investigative reporter, Edison Carter (Matt Frewer, Eureka). Assisted by his controller (basically an in-studio copilot giving him GPS-based directions and background info, while occasionally hacking into security systems) Theora (Amanda Pays, Leviathan), Carter makes his way into the secure areas of Network 23 to interview Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), a teenage prodigy who created blipverts. Carter gets a tape of a feedback loop in action, but security is in hot pursuit, forcing Carter to flee on motorcycle. At the last minute, a security gate swings down and Carter's head slams into it, the warning sign "Max Headroom" (Brit-speak for "Clearance") being the last thing he sees.
Carter is unconscious, but the network needs to find out how much he knows about blipverts, so Bryce scans Carter's brain into an experimental artificial intelligence program. The result is an AI entity calling himself "Max Headroom," who has all of Carter's memories. Max adapts to his virtual world all too quickly, insinuating himself into the network's programming, where he gleefully insults the network, and, even worse, the sponsors. When network head Grossberg (Charles Rocket, Saturday Night Live) threatens to have him erased, Max escapes into the network's network -- there he can relocate his program at will, and due to the interactive nature of the technology, he can see and talk to anyone standing in front of a television. Grossberg is apoplectic, but is in a lose-lose situation; the only way to get rid of Max is to completely shut down the network. Making matters worse, ratings jump whenever Max is on screen. As Greenberg attempts to defuse the situation, the newly rescued Carter and Theora rush to reveal the truth, while their editor Murray (Jeffrey Tambor, Arrested Development) runs interference with network exec Ben Cheviot (George Coe, Remo Williams: The Adventure Begins).
Carter gets occasional help from Reg (Morgan Sheppard, Transformers), who runs an underground network, Big Time Television, from a bus that he moves around as needed. Reg and his companion Dominique (Concetta Tomei, Deep Impact) are "blanks," people who have managed to erase all electronic evidence of their existence, giving them greater access to underground information as well as a certain measure of protection from the government.
You get all twelve aired episodes, as well as the unaired "Baby Grobags." Based on the evidence that Carter says "shit" in one episode, the court suspects that the British cuts were used. They are presented in broadcast order; "Body Banks," though, was intended to follow "Blipverts." Recommended episodes include "Blipverts," "War," "Academy," "Deities," "Whackets," and "Lessons."
"Rakers": Theora's estranged brother is caught up in a dangerous underground sport
"Body Banks": People are being kidnapped and harvested for organs.
"Security Systems": Carter is accused of credit fraud and becomes a fugitive after investigating the world's most powerful security systems corporation.
"War": A producer offers to sell Network 23 exclusive rights to an urban guerilla group's terrorist activities during a crucial 24-hour global ratings sweep period.
"The Blanks": The blanks are mad as hell, and they're not going to take this anymore.
"Academy": Blank Reg gets arrested for highjacking a network broadcast, but the clues point to Bryce's old school.
"Deities": One of Carter's old flames is a televangelist who thinks Max might be the solution to that whole life everlasting bit that she's been (literally) selling to her flock.
"Grossberg's Return": Grossberg returns. Oh, and he's pissed.
"Dream Thieves": People's dreams are being stolen.
"Whackets": The best explanation for reality television I've ever seen.
"Neurostim": ZikZak has a plan to make advertising -- and thus the networks -- obsolete.
"Lessons": Carter and Theora try to find a little girl's older sister, while also trying to find out why the network's enigmatic censor keeps trying to kill the story.
"Baby Grobags" (unaired): Test-tube babies are being stolen from the crèche.
There's no way around it -- this is a dated show. Compared to today's shows, when season-long story arcs are the norm, Max Headroom is definitely found wanting. The best way to approach the series is as guerilla television -- the writers were trying to get ideas down as quickly as possible, and there's always the sense they were just making it up as they went along (given the early production schedule, that wouldn't be surprising). Continuity is a dirty word, and if you spend any time at all trying to figure out exactly why Carter is employed by the network, or how the news division is run, you'll explode as though you had watched one blipvert too many.
And yet the show works.
Part of the reason is the production design, heavily influenced by both Blade Runner and Brazil (any time a television is on in the background, pay attention; you'll thank me later). Part is the oppressive, claustrophobic atmosphere, a function of the production design and the need to keep people near a television (or else Max cannot participate). Part is the sly sense of humor:
Max: What do men do when women are distressed?
Theora: Run away or boast, normally.
Part is the principal cast, bringing their characters to life and managing to sell even the weaker stories. The main reason, though, is that the show was in the right place at the right time. In the late Eighties, the idea of a plethora of cable channels was becoming reality; the computer had not yet become omnipresent, but had made sufficient inroads that in 1983 it was named Time's "Machine of the Year." The World Order, it was a changin', and no one really knew what the future held in store. The show's tagline, "20 minutes into the future," played on that concept, suggesting that the dystopia presented was just around the corner. While some of the episodes are admittedly weak, the world they inhabit remains intensely compelling. The impact of a more pervasive media is applied to some familiar stories (It's hard to watch "War" and not think of Wag the Dog, even though the plots are entirely different), and in the case of "Lessons," the story itself is basically a red herring; the real point is learning more about just how the New World Order has worked itself out. At the heart of it all is the overall irreverence of the concept -- just as Carter exposes all of his employer's dirty laundry, the show savages the media culture that brought it into existence; both are biting the hands that feed them. That's some serious meta going on there, so it's little wonder that the series didn't last long.
The acting from the principals is solid. Matt Frewer brings a sense of earnestness to Edison, while instilling Max with a healthy dose of manic irreverence. Amanda Pays -- well, let's just say that if you were a young computer nerd, Amanda Pays was your ideal woman: smart, computer savvy, and beautiful. Pays has a strong empathetic vibe, which works well since more often than not Theora serves as the audience surrogate, reacting to information from Carter. Jeffery Tambor complements them as their editor, though at times you're never quite sure exactly what Murray does. Chris Young is more of a cipher as Blake; his character was intended to be completely amoral. In the opening episode, for instance, he's pretty blasé about the prospect of Greenberg killing Carter. But that aspect of his character is not developed consistently. Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei, however, steal almost every scene they're in with the bizarre juxtaposition of Reg's cyberpunk'd visage and Dominique's effortless elegance. We never know exactly what their relationship is, only that they just seem to belong together.
Max Headroom was not, in fact, computer generated. They had neither the money nor time for that sort of CGI work, so they used prosthetics to make Frewer's features more flat and angular, and used lighting and editing to make Max look computer generated. For some reason I find that delightful.
The video is pretty good. It looks like it was shot in the mid Eighties, mind you, but the picture is surprisingly free of defects. Audio is also fairly clear, though occasionally dialogue gets muddled. The set includes a solid set of extras. On the downside, the original British movie wasn't included due to rights issues. However, there's an hour-long featurette on the development of Max Headroom, which interviews the creators, writers, and producers. There are also some short features on the science and the production design. The highlight is a rollicking roundtable discussion with Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei, and Chris Young. They just bounce around topics for the better part of 45 minutes, all of them clearly delighted at the reunion. The only thing that could have made it better would have been Matt Frewer himself, but for whatever reason, he declined to participate. A little lagniappe to the roundtable is a brief joint interview with Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei, who during their stint as Reg and Dominique formed a close friendship that remains in full force today.
Whether by design or due to the rushed production schedule, too many episodes come across as unpolished. The overall result is a lack of cohesion that's a little frustrating at times, particularly if you're trying to fit the various pieces of the societal puzzle together. Of course, to an extent that can be spun as an advantage -- by providing only the bare minimum of background information, the audience is left to fill in the details themselves.
At times the characters themselves are somewhat inconsistent, particularly Bryce and Ben Cheviot.
Max Headroom was a smart, heady (sorry) series from a time when network programming, with very few exceptions, stuck with the formulaic.
Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don't know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn't it?
Review content copyright © 2010 Jim Thomas; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2014 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Shout! Factory
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Mono (English)
Running Time: 660 Minutes
Release Year: 1987
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Wikipedia: Max Headroom