Television networks battle one another in an unrelenting ratings war. Whoever controls the airwaves controls the dystopic world in which they broadcast. So when Network 23s star reporter, Edison Carter, uncovers a deadly secret that could shake up the dominion the station has over its viewers, the only option is to eliminate Carter before he can make his story public. After his “accident,” his mind is uploaded to create the world’s first self-aware, computer-generated TV host: Max Headroom! But will Max bow to his creators? Or will he be the key to his human alter ago bringing down a network superpower?
Able to boast his own international talk show, music videos, countless endorsements and merchandising, the puckish Max Headroom became more than just a character on television. He was a decade-defining icon, never better represented than in this sardonically witty, adventurous look at society and the place of media within it. Now all 14 uncut episodes — starring Matt Frewer (Watchmen), Amanda Pays (The Flash), Jeffrey Tambor (Arrested Development) and Morgan Sheppard (Star Trek) — are finally available together in one long-awaited DVD collection!
Max Headroom is the stuff that cult followings are made of. Max, indelible ’80s icon, began his stuttering, glitchy computer-generated existence as the host of a British music video showcase. He went on to shill for New Coke, and then got his own fleshed-out back-story in a British TV movie. Credit ABC for taking the bold leap to give Max his own prime-time series in 1987. “What kind of show is this anyway?” Max asks early on. What, indeed? It’s Blade Runner meets Network, a bleak comedy and cyber satire that, even decades later, one can’t watch without marveling how something so off-center ever get on the air. Max Headroom’s pop culture cachet (featured on the cover of Newsweek, parodied in the comic strip Doonesbury) did not translate into ratings. The show was cancelled after 14 episodes (an unaired episode is included in this set). Decades later, society has caught up to the show that was ahead of its time. The series is set “20 minutes into the future” in a dystopian landscape where instead of a chicken in every pot there is a TV in every homeless tent. Evil and corrupt television executives, in consort with advertising agencies, will literally kill for ratings. In the pilot episode, intrepid investigative reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) discovers his own network is behind blipverts, a potentially lethal brand of advertising that compresses a 30-second commercial into three seconds, causing more-vulnerable viewers to explode. Carter survives an attempt on his life by network goons, but not before Bryce (Chris Young), the network’s resident boy genius, downloads Carter’s memory into a computer to see what he knows of the scheme. A star is born: Max Headroom (Frewer again), who escapes into the system and pops up at will onscreen to offer wisecracks (“You know how you can tell our network president is lying? His lips move.”) and Mork-like societal observations. In one episode, he confuses Missile Mike, a gun-toting character in an ultra-violent children’s show, for an actual rampaging killer. “Who introduced [kids] to this?” Max asks. Meanwhile, Carter, with invaluable assistance from his newsroom controller Theora (Amanda Pays reprising her role from the British movie) and incorruptible producer (Jeffrey Tambor), uncovers venal conspiracies such as an attempt to legalize a vicious sport that exploits children so it can be broadcast. It’s frightening at times how prescient this show was. This set’s bonus features are exhaustive but are missing some key Max-abilia. The British pilot that started it all is absent, as is Frewer from a cast reunion. But talking heads segments with the show’s creators, writers, and designers offer a thorough, inside retrospective look at the series. Welcome back, Max. Boy, do we need you now. –Donald Liebenson
Box set; Color; Dolby; DVD; Full Screen; NTSC