Max Headroom: The Complete Series (review)

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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