Max Headroom: The Complete Series (review)

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20 Minutes Is Now

Despite the common misconception, science fiction has never been about predicting the future: when it appears to, it’s really just reflecting the fears of the moment it’s created in. Sometimes, though, those fears end up being legitimate. As demonstrates Max Headroom, the visionary 1987-1988 ABC science fiction series now finally available on Region 1 DVD thanks to Shout! Factory. Watching this show again today is to see the fears of the past made real in our present today. Max is even more hugely discomforting now than it was once upon a time.
Horrifying as that may be, I’m so glad this is the case. I approached this five-disc set — which includes lots of extras, including a 14th episode that never aired during the original run — with some trepidation. It’s been almost a quarter of a century since Max Headroom graced our screens so briefly, but my memories of it have never faded, so great was the impact it had on my nerdy young brain. Could the reality of the show today, seen once again through my jaded eyes in this science fictional year 2010, possibly stand up against my memories of it?

But there it is: Max Headroom is even more mindblowing today, for its unwitting prescience, for its daring satire (I can’t believe they got away with some of what they got away with on network television), and for its frenetic, and pointedly so, style. The style wasn’t the substance, but the style was inherent in the substance, not in a medium-is-the-message way but medium-as-the-warning way. Much of what was considered “fast-paced” dramatic TV in the 80s is painfully slow-moving to our eyes today — hell, that first episode of ER, dating from only 1994, was dizzying at the time and feels practically glacial now — but these too-few episodes don’t just move fast, they are jam-packed with wit and thinkery that zip by in a way that other shows would not cotton on to until DVD and DVR came along. The level of detail, for instance, that went into the world-building here is gotta-freeze-frame-it deep in a way that even grainy VHS would not have made plain. I had homemade tapes from the show’s original run that I watched over and over, and while some of the dialogue was etched into my brain and came back to me instantly when I devoured these DVDs, there are whole new layers of visuals for me to explore here that simply were unavailable to me with the comparatively low-res recordings I had back then.

It’s much more than just brilliantly conceived set design that makes the gorgeous style a part of the urgent substance, though. Set “20 minutes into the future,” these episodes — each practically a mini movie — offer glimpses of a richly realized world, if a dystopic one, where television is ubiquitous (and ratings are tracked moment to moment), consumerism is literally mindless, journalism is entertainment, and corporate hegemony is complete and total. These tales are told partly through the viewfinder of adventurous Network 23 reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer: Watchmen, Dawn of the Dead), who broadcasts his muckraking live and off the cuff. He feels almost like a blogger to us today as he dredges up stories about advertising that can kill, extreme sports that take advantage of desperate young athletes, the place of religion and politics in a society where TV is the ruling deity, evilly addictive game shows, and more. Edison is constantly on the go and never without his camera — he is his own cameraman — through which he communicates with his “controller,” Theora Jones (Amanda Pays), who acts like a live GPS as she guides him around the city, helps him sneak into secure locations, and the like. On the air or off, Edison speaks right into his camera or gives us his view through it, adding another perspective beyond the omniscient one of the typical dramatic narrative. And additional layers come in on the screens that are everywhere… some of which feature the running commentary of Max Headroom, an AI with Edison’s memories created by Network 23’s resident teenage computer genius Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), who roams the TVscape and has lots that’s withering and disparaging to say about it. There’s something happening in every corner here, and it’s often seen from multiple perspectives, and there’s no slowing down to give you a chance to take it all in: you either keep up by letting it flow over you as a whole, or you give up and get lost in the bits and pieces. Max Headroom wasn’t just about a world in which screens and images are ubiquitous and flow endlessly: it immersed you in that world.

But Max Headroom was even more ahead of its time than it seemed then, because for all the techology that it failed to predict — there are no cell phones here, no Internet — it got the social stuff scarily right, from hacker ethics (or lack thereof) to elderly people working in burger joints to the elevation of entertainment as the be-all of life. We don’t live today in this analog-cyberpunk world… but almost. “Credit fraud? That’s worse than murder!” That’s a line of dialogue that has stuck with me for more than two decades. It felt like science fiction then. Now, it feels a lot closer than 20 minutes into the future.

Perhaps what’s most horrifying, looking back at Max Headroom now, is that while this is a dystopia, it’s not one that any of the characters seem to recognize: it’s just the world they live in, they’re mostly pretty happy, and how could the world be different, anyway? And Edison’s admirable muckraking almost invariably ends up maintaining the status quo, not undermining it, which he appears not to see. This isn’t just a world without hope: it’s a world that doesn’t even realize it lacks hope, or that it needs it.

(At some point in the near-ish future, I plan to blog in detail episode by episode, so catch up with the show now if you want to follow along.)

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Thu, Aug 19, 2010 2:13am

I’ve thought about Max probably once a week since it went off the air, and how eerily prescient it was. And how fracking brilliant it was.

Seeing all of the glowing reviews now make me absurdly happy. And, aaah, the 14th episode. On my VHS tape it’s labeled “Baby Growbags.” I’m not sure if that was the actual title, or if my friend who taped it for me just called it that. Still, ewwwww…

About time it came out on DVD!

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 9:50am

That’s the title!

Tonio Kruger
Tonio Kruger
Thu, Aug 19, 2010 12:50pm

But Max Headroom was even more ahead of its time than it seemed then, because for all the techology that it failed to predict — there are no cell phones here, no Internet — it got the social stuff scarily right, from hacker ethics (or lack thereof) to elderly people working in burger joints to the elevation of entertainment as the be-all of life.

I could have sworn that elderly people were working in burger joints when Max Headroom first came out. Heck, I once read a novel from 1977 that alluded to that and while that novel was part of a men’s adventure series that had many sci-fi elements, it was generally assumed that the idea of old people working in burger joints was not one of those elements but an aspect of–ahem–real life.

What most shows of the 1980s did not predict was the number of young Hispanics–many of whom obviously speak English as a second language–who work in today’s burger joints. Of course, it’s easier to note this here in Texas–which, like most Southwestern states, have a highly visible Hispanic population–than it would be in New York in which Hispanics seem to be not so visible because of the thousand other visible ethnic groups–and that’s without getting into the numerous cultural differences between, say, New Yorkers of Mexican, Puerto Rican, Cuban or Dominican descent.

Anyway, you make a better case for the show than I would have thought possible. I just hope it lives up to your recommendation.

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 1:20pm

Soo have to get this! Thanks for the heads-up!

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 1:35pm

Max Headroom was the first introduction, to me, of a movie that had a TV Series based on it that wasn’t connected to the movie. Had to wrap my adolescent head around that before anything else.

Maximum Headroom, indeed.

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 3:03pm

This is fascinating. I’d heard of Max Headroom, but it was before my time so I’ve never seen it. I need to check it out. Funny how satire stays so relevant sometimes (I saw Robocop for the first time about two weeks ago- change the name of the evil company to Halliburton or Blackwater and it’s frightening how perfectly it fits).

What’s interesting to me is that this show’s most enduring legacy is purely superficial- the computerized head talking in broken, stuttering sentences. I’ve seen that parodied a number of times, but that’s all most people, especially my age, really know about the show. Could it be that some of the aesthetic elements were exaggerated into camp to blunt the serious message of it? I don’t necessarily mean that in a conspiratorial way- it’s more like, did the people who watched the show focus on sillier aspects because they couldn’t really face the full message? Kind of like “Walking on the Sun,” the Smashmouth song, which describes how the hippie movement became little more than a fashion statement and people forgot that it originally was intended to change the world.

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 4:15pm

Jurgan – I don’t think it’s anything that deep. Max Headroom (the character) was simply totally unique and quite funny and that lead to him being popular outside of the show that spawned him. He sold Coke for awhile and had two other shows that I remember one where he introduced Music Videos and one where he was a talk show host. While this can make the case that someone thought that the message could be turning people off none of these spin-offs lasted very long either but helped to get him popularity. To sum up a post that’s gone on way too long, I’m sure there are tons of people who know Max Headroom the character but never even watched the show.

Also just a bit of an aside Robocop is technically the first X rated movie I saw since I went to a screening when it first came out before it was rated. Then it was rated X and they had to edit out some of the violence to get an R rating. You can get the original version on DVD now and it’s not alot of time that’s cut but it does make a difference to the feeling of those scenes.

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 8:34pm

Frewer was delicious twenty minutes into the future.

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 9:01pm

I still remember the Max Headroom episode where Carter was accused of Credit Fraud: his credit stick (pre-USB) was used as a means of entering his own apartment complex… and I didn’t realize until a few years later that meant he had to PAY his way in to his own home!

Thu, Aug 19, 2010 10:49pm

No, I think the credit sticks were just all-around ID devices. I never got the sense that Edison had to pay to get home.

Though I could be wrong!

Sat, Apr 04, 2015 3:24pm

I’ve found Max on Kodi. My ex and I really enjoyed the show when it first aired. It appealed to our anti- corporate sensibility. I didn’t see every episode but one that stuck out to me was about “the Blanks”. It was about a couple (if I recall) who had no official ID or credit record. They understood how they were being traced by there purchases. I found that very predictive of today’s world.