[Note: I originally wanted to publish this review with screenshots, but I decided to file it as-is, let people read it for flavor, and then add the images later when time permitted.]
Of all the TV shows I adored as a kid, none ended up being more mythic or prophetic than Max Headroom. Growing up in 1987, it was all too easy to imagine living in a future that looked like this, smelled like this, worked (or, better yet, did not work) like this. It was a mash-up of all the dystopian flavors of the Seventies and Eighties: equal parts Blade Runner, Brazil, Mad Max and Network, with doses of L.A. Confidential and Kolchak (or even the old Charles Bronson show Man with a Camera) thrown in for good measure.
Few other shows also became harder to find after Max’s less-than-one-season run on ABC ended with the show being yanked and relegated to only the most occasional rerun on cable TV years later. The only other place it seemed to exist at all was as a Japanese LaserDisc import, another of the many items of legendary distinction in the 1992 Pioneer LDCA catalog. Now Shout! Factory has brought the whole series back to life on DVD, right at a point in time when it ought to have seemed dated. It isn’t. If anything, it’s still ahead of its time, which means in another 20 years it might well seem timeless.
Max takes the basic intrepid-journalist / wisecracking-sidekick template and drops it “20 minutes into the future” (Warhol, call your office). The reporter is Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), whose nose for a good story and cynical humor are matched by his urge to do the right thing no matter what the mores of the time. When he finds out a little too much about an ad-delivery system at his home network, he accidentally smashes into a guardrail sporting the warning MAX HEADROOM 2.3 M, and when the network’s resident kid genius Bryce (Chris Young) dumps his memory into an AI to determine what he knows, the newly-minted digital personality cheerfully bills itself as “Max Headroom”. Max (also played by Frewer, in plastic makeup) quickly becomes a Network 23 ratings draw, but also Carter’s digital sidekick — as flip, irreverent and ADD as Carter is himself determined and focused. In a wired age, it helps to have buddies who are quite literally on the other side of the screen.
Carter has other allies as well. His “controller” Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) serves as his Gal Friday, providing home-base support for his adventures from her keyboard, while rebuffing Carter’s perennial carnality with a stiff dose of British Isles bemusement. (It’s not that she dislikes him — she just wants him to up his ante.) Carter’s producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) serves as both the voice of the network and the occasional voice of sanity — sometimes bringing him back down to earth, and sometimes just throwing up a wall where Carter knows perfectly well there shouldn’t be one. Bryce, ensconced in his cave of computer screens and geek toys, is what every kid of the Eighties lucky enough to have a home computer dreamed of becoming: someone whose play could also be his work. He’s like a lot of the other people at the network in that he is just smart enough to pull things off, not wise enough to understand why that might be a bad idea. (He’s the one who came up with the deadly ad-delivery mechanism, and when grilled about it he giggles: “Well, after all, I only invented the bomb. I didn’t drop it.”)
One basic way to write SF is to take whatever’s going on around you right now and amplify it a hundredfold. Most of the stories Carter uncovers work like that, and are amplified in such a way that they not only lose none of their relevance but seem like the worst things they predict simply haven’t happened yet. An extreme underground sport, “raking”, starts off as a pastime developed by bored urban kids, and is quickly pounced on and AstroTurfed into a franchise by the gatekeepers. (One network head has the brilliant idea of setting up network-branded betting kiosks right in the stadium.) Or consider a rash of video-hacking incidents, where those who have taken the trouble to drop off the grid entirely — who else would know better how to hack the system? — are rounded up and scapegoated for the crime. Or a “digital religion” that promises AI-powered life after death but merely produces something on the level of a Teddy Ruxpin doll. Or a terrorist group that sells shares in the ratings generated by TV coverage of its actions. There’s humor and anger, both quite icy, in the way all this stuff gets presented, and the show’s scruffy, low-budget, hammered-together look makes it all the more credible.
I admired how the show set up most everyone as neither explicitly good nor evil, just self-interested. Network 23 itself has the power to do tremendous good, as when it airs Carter’s muckraking exposés — but for the most part it’s content to do deals with companies like Zik Zak, which airs advertisements that can kill the viewer through sheer information overload. (The visualization Bryce provides for the way this works generates one of the biggest laughs in the whole show; it’s reminiscent of the equally-snide interludes in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, and even presented in the same faux-digital animated style.) 23’s own boss Cheviot (George Coe) isn’t a bad man, but is too often torn between choosing what’s right for the company and what’s right, period. At one point Carter is slapped with trumped-up charges; Cheviot shakes his head and intones “Credit fraud — my god, that’s worse than murder.” Against the mores of the age, even the gods themselves labor in vain.
Max isn’t the only one who thinks everything is TV — so do, from what we see, most of the executives, bottom-feeders, and the folks who make up shows like “Lumpy’s Proletariat” (the name of one hit series in the Maxiverse). Television isn’t just a medium to them, but a way of life: the TVs have no off-switches, and they’re used to monitor the populace — not just by the authorities, but by the broadcast networks themselves to determine ratings and ad sales. Even the news is part of this vicious cycle, as we quickly learn: “Since when has news been entertainment?” Carter fumes at one point, only to have Murray deadpan back: “Since it was invented?” In their world, the only things that haven’t become “entertainment” of one kind or another are things that don’t exist yet — but don’t worry, they’re working on that too.
The environment of the show — a mixture of gleaming new and rotting old — stands out on its own as a character by itself. The Max world is riddled with interlocking systems that break down as often as they actually work; every one thing seems bolted together out of five other things, like Theora’s TV-plus-typewriter computer (a shout-out to Brazil right there). Right after I typed that sentence I glanced around my desk and noticed how my own computer is the same way: vintage mouse, late-model keyboard, cutting-edge desktop, next-gen smartphone. Max takes this conceit all the way: everything in its world, from the luxury apartments to the shantytowns, is cobbled together — as if the factories that made all this stuff shut down years ago and everyone’s combing the wreckage for spares. All this struck home for me back in 1987; at the time, it was far easier to envision a future that looked more like the slums of Calcutta than the bridge of the Enterprise.
Of all the characters in the cast, I find myself feeling closest not only to Carter — he’s the easy choice — but “Blank” Reg, the squatter/samizdat broadcaster who pulled up roots, barters for a living and maintains his cheer even in the midst of the grime and decay. Like the bloggers of today whose websites suddenly go big overnight, his tiny empire in a sardine can Big Time Television (broadcasting out of his trailer) hits it big here and there with bizarre meme-age stuff like the incomprehensible game show Whacketts. But for the most part he’s an old-schooler, broadcasting everything from primordial music videos (Divine’s cover of “Walk Like A Man” shows up at one point) to Golden Age cinema. He’s one of the few standard-bearers for a world where little things like literacy, privacy, and a creative sense of humor actually meant something.
It’s the humor of the show, more than anything else, which makes it such a reward for a thinking audience. When Reg gives one of his underground buddies a gift of a mysterious cube of paper and gets a blank look in return, he snarls: “It’s a book. A nonvolatile storage medium.” (When that line is no longer funny, I’ll know I’m past my own sell-by date.) A lot of subtle contextual wordplay zips past in the background: the name “Max Headroom” itself is one of the big examples, obviously, but when we first hear the name “Ped Xing” (head of Zik Zak, one of Network 23’s biggest ad customers), we assume it’s just a vaguely Asian name … and then we see how it’s actually spelled. And Max himself gets a minute or two at the end of every episode to babble, Andy Rooney-style, about the topic du jour: “Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don't know the answer? Hmm. Successful, isn't it?”
That Max Headroom made it to mainstream TV at all is something of a miracle. Most everyone who tuned in while it was first airing was baffled. The few people who got it the first time around — like my fellow science-fiction-reading buddies in high school — loved it to death, and despaired when ABC pulled the plug on it after its ratings tanked midseason and never recovered. Nothing remotely like it ever showed up on prime-time TV again, at least until The X-Files surfaced and gave audiences another taste of what was possible with esseff on teevee.
And even The X-Files didn’t have the kind of smartass paranoia that Max did. The most frightening and magnificent thing about Max Headroom is not just how it hasn’t dated one bit in twenty years, but how many of its most scathing ideas are still in the process of coming true. I watched Star Trek as a wee one, but didn’t see any transporters or Vulcans in my future. Then came Max Headroom, and I could see all too easily how we were plunging headlong into a world of digital ephemera, security theater, techno-boredom and terrifying violence. No matter how bad it gets, I suspect Max Headroom has envisioned the worst of it already. Maybe even a couple of ways out, too.