Although he probably appears a little underwhelming to today’s viewer, Max Headroom’s first appearances in the media were pretty mindblowing. It wasn’t so much that his character was mostly computer-generated, which was not all that dazzling by the mid-eighties. What was really compelling about him was that he basically operated in real time, and was invested with enough personality that you immediately accepted him as “real”. Max Headroom rarely gets the credit he deserves for predicting the advent of the soundbyte-driven talking heads that shape today’s news presentation. Or for pretty much creating a big part of Jim Carey’s shtick, several years before it was Jim Carey’s shtick. See this Letterman clip from 1986, for instance:
As a countercultural, club-dwelling, art movie snob in the 80’s, the most likely use of a television in my house was as a piece of furniture or a light source, i.e., in one of those typically 80’s “paint everything matte black and use old snowy-screen TVs as decor” apartments. I mean, I really, really hated television. That is, except for Max Headroom. In an era when lifestyle propaganda horrors like Charles in Charge, Silver Spoons, Full House, and Webster dominated the airwaves, here we had this stroke of utter genius in the form of a snarky, highbrow, digitally generated talking head. And in spite of this being cutting-edge technology at the time, the creators did the brilliant thing and made the special effects glitchy and somewhat secondary to the writing and character, letting the quirky, fidgety persona of actor Matt Frewer shine through. At the height of his popularity, Max was a shill for Coke, as in this presidential campaign themed ad. Hmmm. Maybe he should consider an actual run, he’d fit the 2016 election’s carnival vibe perfectly.
I was more partial to the earlier British Channel 4 Music video program – I think the character worked best in short snippets – but there was also a Cinemax talk show and a British-produced ABC TV sci-fi series that lasted two seasons, in 1987-88. And guess what! The latter is available on DVD. The other productions may never see the light of day because of the labyrinthine copyright issues due to song and cable rights, but you can find many of them as bittorrents or with a YouTube search. And if you want to learn more about the arc of Max’s career and how the show evolved, The Verge has an excellently-assembled definitive oral history.