If you don’t understand the headline, you’re probably too young to remember Max Headroom, originally a British television movie that became a short-lived series for American broadcast (1987-1988) featuring a computer generated talking head–that would be Max–who later became a music video host, a “spokesperson” for New Coke (and if you don’t know what New Coke was, you’re really too young to care about this), and later brought out of retirement in the United Kingdom to explain the switch from analog to digital TV (this, you might remember). Though, today, any 12 year old with a cheap laptop could probably program a character like Max, back in the 1980s this was beyond the technical reach and budget constraints of broadcast television; Max was played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer outfitted in a latex get-up to make him appear pixalated.
I was excited to learn that the series had recently been released for the first time on DVD: I vaguely remembered the program from its initial broadcast (because, yeah, I’m that old) and was eager to revisit something I remember as being very cool.
Alas, as Tom Wolfe used to say, you can’t go home again.
I’m only a few episodes in, so perhaps it’s unfair for me to say this, but so far, it doesn’t seem to hold up, with the exception of the first installment that establishes how Channel 23 TV star investigative reporter Edison Carter’s memories become imprinted in a rogue computer program that goes viral (“Max Headroom” is actually a recording term, but in the story Edison is driving a motorcycle trying to escape from some bad guys, but doesn’t quite make it past a parking lot barrier indicating low clearance marked “max headroom 2.3 m”). It’s not the anachronisms that are bothersome; the story takes place “20 minutes into the future” in which the Internet has yet to be invented, with corded telephones, clunky CRT monitors connected to keyboards that look like typewriters and bulky video cameras slung over the shoulder. In other words, it’s 20 minutes into the future of the late 1980s in which a dystopic America of wide class divides is dominated by evil corporations. While that might not seem all that different from today, here the corporate enemy is the very medium for which Edison Carter works: television.
In fact, what was surprising and perhaps revolutionary for the series at the time is the degree to which the program literally bit the hand that fed it: the premier episode concerns the use of surreptitious “blitverts”–one minute commercials compressed into a high-speed subliminal transmission that broadcast TV actually did subsequently experiment with–that have the unfortunate side effect of blowing up the neural pathways of certain obese middle Americans who owe their physical state to watching too much television. The corporate honchos are trying to hide this problem because, well, the blitverts result in higher ratings.
This is fun and interesting stuff. The villians here are nicely portrayed, and it’s great satire in the tradition of Paddy Chayefsky’s Network. Also, members of the impoverished underclass get a kind of punky look that still holds up. Problem is, after the first episode, things seem to go downhill. Max isn’t as funny as I remember him. While It’s unfair to criticize a show for primitive special effects in a time of primitive special effects, there’s no excuse for poor acting and bland shoot-em-up action hero story lines (remember kiddies, this was back in the day when movies were supposed to be about good acting and story, not just special effects). It’s perhaps a backhanded compliment to say that Frewer is better as a computer animation than as Edison, and his hacker-partner Theora Jones, portrayed by Amanda Pays, is positively one dimensionally dreadful.
Again, I haven’t gotten through the whole series, so things may pick up . Even if they don’t, the premier episode is worth checking out. Consider how subversive it must have been at the time to have Max Headroom ask the audience: “How do you know when a television executive is lying? When his lips move.”