The Complete Series
The ultimate talking head is b-b-b-ack-ack-ack.
In 1985, Britain’s then-fledgling Channel 4 aired a one-hour TV movie set “20 minutes into the future” and detailing the origin of what was billed as the world’s first digitally created television personality: Max Headroom. (In reality, Max was Canadian actor Matt Frewer in prosthetic makeup enhanced by then-state-of-the-art animation.) Despite a tendency to glitch and stutter, Max was witty, sarcastic and irreverent, and he drew no distinction between the video reality in which he existed and the world outside. He was not so much an A.I. as an A.A. (artifice with attitude).
Max went on to host several seasons of a Channel 4 talk show in which he interviewed celebrities, played music videos and generally entertained by being himself. In America, Max became famous after HBO (which co-financed the production) aired Channel 4's TV movie on its Cinemax channel and Max began to appear on MTV, notably in a video by Art of Noise. He became so popular that in 1986 Coca-Cola tapped him as a spokesman to help it recover from the disastrous introduction of “New Coke”.
At around the same time, ABC found itself at the bottom of the ratings heap and desperate enough to try almost anything to revive its sleepy image. Thus it was that, in 1987 (the same year that Star Trek: The Next Generation premiered), a new version of the Max Headroom show invaded America’s living room and immediately attracted a small but devoted following. Max was a major celebrity now. For its April 20, 1987 edition, Newsweek put him on the cover.
But, as often happens when networks buy something they don’t understand, ABC’s ardor quickly cooled – especially as executives watched the costs mount for creating the futuristic world in which Max Headroom was set. After two abbreviated seasons, the series was abruptly canceled. Max continued to pop up now and again on MTV, but by the Nineties, he had largely disappeared.
Shout! Factory has now issued all 14 episodes of the ABC series in a superior package with detailed extras. Like all things digital, Max Headroom never went away. He was just archived and awaiting retrieval.
Studio: Shout! Factory
Film Length: app. 11 hours
Aspect Ratio: 4:3
Audio: English DD 2.0
Disc Format: 5 DVD-9
Package: 3 slimcases in box with lenticular cover
Insert: Episode guide
Original Broadcast Dates: Mar. 1, 1987-May 5, 1988 (ABC)
DVD Release Date: Aug. 10, 2010
The opening episode, “Blipverts”, is essentially a remake of the British origin story, with almost all the supporting players recast with American actors. (Max himself was conceived as an American from the beginning, for reasons explained in the “Live from Network 23” documentary on the bonus features disc.)
Max Headroom is set in a future world consciously designed as cross between Blade Runner and Network. (Other obvious influences include The Road Warrior, Brazil and possibly The Running Man.) It’s a world ruled by TV stations, of which there are thousands, and giant corporations. Together they control everything, including police, education and elections.
The leading broadcaster is Network 23, and one of its stars is crusading reporter Edison Carter (Frewer), whose show is called “I Want to Know”. With a camera pack on his shoulder, Carter roams the urban wasteland, exposing the truth about whatever wrongdoing has caught his attention. Whenever he’s in the field, Carter is in constant communication with a network “controller” who tracks his every move via satellite. When his current controller, Gorrister (Ken Swofford), lets him down, Carter demands that his producer, Murray, get him a new one – “the best”. Murray, played with hang-dog resignation by the great Jeffrey Tambor, before he became famous on The Larry Sanders Show and Arrested Development, obliges by hiring the beautiful and talented Theora Jones (Amanda Pays, one of the few holdovers from the British cast).
In the boardroom, the situation is tense. Network 23’s major advertiser is the Zik-Zak Corporation, a Japanese conglomerate whose motto is “We make everything you need and you need everything we make”. To keep Zik-Zak’s business, Network 23 not only has to maintain its ratings, but it also has to find a way to prevent channel switching during commercials. A top executive, Grossberg (Charles Rocket), has introduced a revolutionary new technique called “Blipverts”, which encodes commercials into the video signal so that they’re transmitted in a few seconds directly to the viewer’s nervous system, leaving no time to change the channel. This remarkable feat of engineering was achieved by Network 23’s resident whiz kid, 16-year-old Bryce Lane (Chris Young).
Unfortunately, Blipverts have an unforeseen side effect on a small percentage of the population, and it’s fiery, explosive and fatal. As reports of these incidents multiply, the network’s president, Ben Cheviot (George Coe), tells Grossberg to pull Blipverts off the air, but Grossberg argues they’ll lose Zik-Zak if they do.
As it happens, Edison Carter is investigating the Blipvert deaths, but he doesn’t know what he’s investigating. He just knows that the Metro Police (who answer to the network) are keeping a tight lid on something odd. With Grossberg and Bryce secretly monitoring Carter’s activities, Carter finds himself being chased from the scene of the latest Blipvert incident. When he tries to flee on a motorcycle, he crashes into a barrier that reads “Max Headroom 2.3m”. It’s the last thing Carter sees before he’s knocked unconscious.
Grossberg has Carter brought to Bryce’s lab, where Bryce applies another of his recent experiments by downloading Carter’s memories into a computer simulation so that they can discover what Carter has learned about Blipverts. But the experiment doesn’t go as planned. The simulation takes on a life of its own. Looking out at Bryce and Grossberg, it asks: “Say, would someone mind checking the ratings? I seem to have an audience of two.” Max Headroom is born.
Grossberg pays off two sleazoids named Breughel and Mahler (Jere Burns and Rick Ducommun, in recurring roles) to deliver Carter to one of the city’s shadier body banks, where they don’t mind if the donated organs come from bodies that are still alive, but Theora tracks him down just in time. Carter exposes Grossberg, and Cheviot fires him. In the meantime, Network 23 has found something new to offer the Zik-Zak Corporation: a one-of-a-kind pitchman in the form of Max Headroom.
“Blipverts” is considerably less dark and pessimistic than the original British TV movie. One obvious difference is the character of Bryce, who, in the British version, was almost a sociopath, but in the remake becomes a big kid to whom everything is a game. It’s the kind of change that’s essential for converting Max Headroom to series format, because Bryce has to make the transition from someone who nearly killed Edison to his colleague, teammate and friend.
Also missing from “Blipverts” is a terrific comic character from the British original who would be introduced in later episodes of the American series and is the only other cast member, aside from Frewer and Pays, to be retained from the original cast: “Blank Reg”, played by W. Morgan Sheppard, an aging punk rocker with a mohawk who operates a local access channel out of a pink bus called Big Time TV with his partner Dominique (Concetta Tomei). Reg is a “blank”, because he’s not part of the official system, and he becomes one of Edison’s most useful contacts.
As writer Steve Roberts notes in the supplements, American TV writing (at least in that era) stressed character relationships and back stories. During many episodes of Max Headroom, you can feel the writers applying familiar devices to this unfamiliar world, trying to figure out what kind of stories to tell and what role to assign each character. Thus, we get an episode involving Theora’s brother and “extreme” sports (“Rakers”); another that takes Bryce back to the Network 23-sponsored school where he used to be the star pupil (“Academy”); and one where a woman from Edison’s past reappears as the spiritual leader of a new age church promising resurrection through technology (“Deities”).
Meanwhile, in every episode, Max Headroom pops up now and again to offer sardonic commentary. No one says so in the various documentaries, but it’s obvious from watching the episodes that one of the biggest challenges for the writers was integrating Max into the storylines. The original premise was to give Max an “origin story”, after which he became a TV personality in his own right. But once Edison Carter returned to center stage for a continuing series, what part should Max play? In the first season, the writers borrowed a device from Alfred Hitchcock’s television show by having Max close each episode by introducing the final commercials – with jokes about commercials. By the second season, as the storylines became more focused, the writers needed every minute of air time, and this device was abandoned in favor of having Max interact more frequently with Edison. But this approach too had its limitations. By the time the series was canceled, even Edison was growing tired of Max’s interruptions.
Max Headroom was such an original and groundbreaking series that its fans (of which I’m one) often praise it in extreme terms. An example can be found in the essay by Javier Grillo-Marxuach included in the DVD set’s insert. Still, if one is being objective, one must concede that the episodes are frequently disjointed, especially in the first season. A genuinely innovative show takes time to figure out, and you can already see that happening in the second season. It was then, for example, that the writers came up with the device of bringing back Grossberg, but now as the head of rival Network 66, and thus a common enemy for Carter, Max and Ben Cheviot. This led to one of my favorite episodes, “Whackets”, in which both Networks 23 and 66 compete to acquire an awful show that people can’t seem to stop watching, because, unbeknownst to anyone, a devious programmer (played by, of all people, comedian Bill Maher!) has hidden an addictive neuro-stimulator code in the video signal.
The final three episodes of the series (including “Baby Grobags”, which ABC never aired) reflect the writers’ growing confidence and suggest the many directions they could have explored had the series continued. In “Neurostim”, the Zik-Zak Corporation attempts to bypass advertising by giving away a bracelet with every purchase that directly implants a compulsion to purchase in the wearer’s brain. In “Lessons”, Edison battles the Network 23 censor for control over a story about the censor’s activities; at stake is the entire educational system. In “Baby Grobags”, Edison investigates the business of in vitro fertilization and discovers that – surprise! – it’s crooked.
These were the 1980s. Imagine what Edison Carter could investigate today. And wouldn’t you love to hear Max’s commentary?
Shout! Factory’s presentation of this 23-year-old series is astonishingly good. With one exception, the source material appears to be in pristine condition. The exception is the episode “Dream Thieves”, which has a “pulsing” wave pattern emanating from the lower right corner of the screen for much of the episode; since it’s limited to this one episode, I assume it to be a source issue. Otherwise, the transfer has captured a remarkable amount of detail in the elaborate production design, especially when one considers that Max Headroom was made for an era when a 27" TV was considered a large screen. The otherworldly lighting, created with fluorescents, neon and a lot of smoke, is reproduced effectively, as are the colors, which have one thing in common, whether we’re with Edison in the field, in Theora’s control room, in the Network 23 board room or at Max’s video display: Nothing looks natural.
The soundtrack is DD 2.0. To my ears, it was stereo. Processed through ProLogic decoding, the sound did not collapse to the center channel, but provided a general sense of ambiance, although there were no obvious rear channel effects. The dialogue is clear, and the effects and music are reproduced with good fidelity.
All of the special features have an aspect ratio of 1.78:1 and are enhanced for 16:9.
Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom (1:00:05). This lengthy and informative documentary traces the history of Max from his initial conception through all the various stages of writing, casting and production. Participants include Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, who co-wrote and co-directed the original British origin story; George Stone, who worked with Morton and Jankel to develop the story and is credited with creating the name “Max Headroom”; Peter Wagg, producer of both the British and the American shows; Brian Frankish, who joined the team as a line producer to deal with the logistics of the American series; and Steve Roberts, writer of both the British original and multiple episodes of the American series, and Michael Cassutt, who joined the team for the American remake.
Looking Back at the Future (35:30). A roundtable reunion of cast members, moderated by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, a producer and writer for Lost and other shows. Participants are Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei, Amanda Pays and Chris Young. The conversation seems genuinely spontaneous, as these former colleagues, most of whom had’t seen each other since working together on Max Headroom, remind each other of stories and personalities from their time on the series.
The Big-Time Blanks (12:05). Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei reminisce about playing “Blank Reg” and Dominique and the ambiguous relationship between their characters.
The Science Behind the Fiction (11:54). George Stone, a sci-fi writer described as a “cocreator” of Max Headroom, talks about the influences and thought processes behind Max’s invention. If you look up Stone at IMDb, he is nowhere credited on any of the Max Headroom productions, but many of the key participants acknowledge Stone’s contribution in the “Live on Network 23” documentary. Stone is one of those hypnotic conversationalists who holds your attention for a long time before you realize that he’s rambling. Producer Peter Wagg says that out of every ten ideas Stone would propose, nine would be useless and one would be brilliant. You can see just what he means.
The Writers Remember (10:46). Steve Roberts, who wrote the original story, and Mike Cassutt, who joined for the American series, recall how the show was written. There was no “writers’ room” and little oversight of the writing process, which no doubt accounts for the originality (and, in some cases, the disjointedness) of the show’s scripts. At the end, Roberts tells an entertaining story from a science fiction panel in which he was a participant with author William Gibson.
Producing Dystopia (7:50). Line producer Brian Frankish talks about the pressure and challenge of recreating the futuristic world of Max Headroom in Los Angeles, and then extending it beyond the initial origin story. Frankish is an energetic commentator and often very funny. His tale of driving the very British Peter Wagg on a location scout is one of the best bits in the extras.
Max Headroom is a perfect candidate for a reboot. The one thing its creators didn’t foresee was the internet, which would be the perfect habitat for Max. In the 21st Century version, Edison Carter would be a blogger, not a TV personality, Bryce would be a hacker extraordinaire, and “Blank Reg” would be a multi-media street artist à la Banksy. Theora would be an executive at some cable channel, and Murray would be her boss. And Max? He could roam the web at will, instead of having to be carted around by Bryce in some clunky piece of hardware. In today’s networked world, there’s literally nowhere Max couldn’t pop up. Think of the possibilities
Equipment used for this review:
Denon 955 DVD player
Samsung HL-T7288W DLP display
Sunfire Cinema Grand amplifier
Monitor Audio floor-standing fronts and MA FX-2 rears
Boston Accoustics VR-MC center
SVS SB12-Plus sub