The Inspiration Vulture Targets: Max Headroom

Overview: To this day, I find it amazing that Max Headroom ever existed, particularly on prime-time network television. It’s commonly referred to as ground-breaking and yes, it certainly was, but after the ground was broken, it didn’t exactly spawn a horde of imitators. In the twenty years since it went off the air, have there been other unambiguously cyberpunk shows on network television? I can’t come up with any, and there sure isn’t anything like it on the air nowadays. Maybe only in the eighties, in the mystic realm of Mad Max and Miami Vice and post-apocalyptic Duran Duran videos, could this show have found a home.

Max Headroom was an ABC series that premiered in 1987 and ran for a season and a half. The first incarnation was a British made-for-television movie, which was intended to introduce audiences to the character of Max, the computer-generated host of a UK variety show. The UK movie was re-shot, with the script largely intact, and used as the pilot for the ABC series. The US version kept the original leads -- Matt Frewer and Amanda Pays -- and replaced most of the rest of the cast.

Since its cancellation, Max Headroom has aired in syndication on the Bravo and SciFi channels, but, as it has never been released on DVD, it’s remembered mostly as a relic of the eighties. The character of Max Headroom -- Coke shill and pop-culture punchline -- is more widely remembered than the series, which is unfortunate: beyond the pilot episode, Max was fairly peripheral to the show. He’d appear in the teaser and tag of most episodes, and would make sporadic appearances throughout, but his presence was generally not crucial to the plot.

Set, as the chyron would inform us as the start of each episode, twenty minutes in the future (in fact, 20 Minutes Into the Future was the title of the original UK TV movie), the world of Max Headroom was an aggressive dystopia, a television-obsessed society dominated by hundreds of television networks and fueled by a maniacal drive for higher ratings. The series focused upon the corrupt and powerful Network 23 and its star investigative reporter, Edison Carter. Matt Frewer, who was usually a character actor (among many other roles, he’s known for the miniseries The Stand), made a rare and effective foray into leading-man territory in Max Headroom; it’s hard to think of another actor with the right blend of crisp intelligence and glacial snark to pull Edison off (think Anderson Cooper with more bite). Max Headroom himself was a chatty, unrestrained, computer-replicated version of Edison’s memory, who took on a kind of life of his own beyond the borders of his programming. Edison worked in tandem with his controller, Theora Jones (Amanda Pays, a knockout who made a strangely plausible computer geek), who navigated clear paths for Edison through Max Headroom’s endlessly networked landscape by overriding alarms and unlocking doors and plotting escape routes; between them, Edison and Theora made investigative reporting look terribly exciting and glamorous.

Almost as valuable to Edison as Theora was teen prodigy Bryce Lynch. Eighties movies and television were glutted with kid geniuses and computer geeks, but Bryce, played by Chris Young in the ABC version, was one of the best, probably because he was the creation of people who understood that super-smart teenagers didn’t necessarily need to be precious or abrasive or loathsome. Antisocial and arrogant, Bryce cheerfully involved himself in a number of shady situations, but was essentially a good kid. Recurring villainy was supplied by Grossberg (Charles Rocket), the disgraced head of Network 23, and his sinister odd-job men Brueghel and Mahler. The cast was rounded out with top-drawer actors like W. Morgan Sheppard, Jeffrey Tambor, and Conchetta Tomei.

Personal Context: Max Headroom aired in 1987 and 1988, which is when I was transitioning from junior high to high school. It was my first exposure to cyberpunk – it’s preceded by Blade Runner and William Gibson’s Neuromancer, but I saw Max Headroom before becoming aware of either. I remember an old interview with Blink-182 where they referred to themselves as the Fisher-Price My First Punk Band. Furthering this concept, Max Headroom is the Fisher-Price My First Cyberpunk Experience.

Inspiration Vulture: Max Headroom is all about style and tone. Blade Runner is the obvious comparison (here’s a guilty secret: I actually don’t like Blade Runner all that much. I know, I know, no need to tell me; it’s a character flaw on my part. In any case, it seems like 90% of everything I admire holds some kind of debt to Blade Runner, and I respect it for that, but the film itself -- original version, director’s cut, extended cut, what have you -- gives me narcolepsy), but tone-wise it’s closer to Brazil. Maybe this is a credit to the UK roots: Max Headroom is quirky and sardonic, darkly satirical and unsentimental, though not bleak. Visually, while the special effects may be outdated by two decades, the show managed to put together an evocative, iconic look. I’m a sucker for a good futuristic cityscape -- I love the sight of the Network 23 tower looming over a ruined city, surrounded by mounds of debris and trash can fires and, most pertinently, television sets as far as the eye can see. That’s Max Headroom.


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