Max Headroom: “Blipverts”

Let’s look at the pilot episode of Max Headroom, the cyberpunk TV series that aired far too briefly on ABC from 1987 to 1988. The pilot was a pared-down remake of an excellent 1985 UK made-for-television movie, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. The basic plot, some dialogue, and some footage, plus three of the principal actors—Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays and, appearing later in the series, W. Morgan Sheppard—were retained from the movie version, though most roles were recast, and the bulk of the scenes were reshot.

The character of Max Headroom achieved a level of fame—as a talk show host, as a New Coke pitchman, as a pop-culture punchline—that eclipsed both the TV movie and the series (more people know Max Headroom than know Max Headroom, if you follow my drift). That’s a shame. All respect to Max, but the show is greater than the character.

Max Headroom is set in a future dystopia ruled by warring high-powered corporations, in a nameless metropolis made up of glittery, neon-emblazoned skyscrapers (Blade Runner was a clear influence on the show, as was William Gibson’s celebrated novel Neuromancer) and makeshift homeless camps. The pilot episode drops viewers right smack into this society: There’s no pedantic voice-over detailing how humanity reached this level, no clumsy expository dialogue summing up the situation. There’s no explanation at all, in fact, beyond the elegant and enigmatic opening chyron: 20 MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE.

(Every time I upload this screenshot, Blogger "fixes" the colors to make it look like this. I give up.)
A television show that assumes viewers are sharp enough to figure out a fairly sophisticated situation with a minimum of hand-holding. Gorblimey, I’d forgotten what that was like.

As “Blipverts” opens, we meet Edison Carter, star news reporter for high-powered, top-rated Network 23. Matt Frewer, who pulls double duty as both Edison and the titular Max, usually plays memorable scumbags (Crockett’s nemesis Cliff King on Miami Vice) or weirdos (Moloch in Watchmen, Trashcan Man in The Stand) or some combination of both (Pestilence on Supernatural); this is one of the rare times when he’s pressed into duty as a straightforward leading man, albeit one who develops a very odd alter-ego. Video camera in hand, Edison investigates the mysterious death of a man in an apartment complex, while back in the Network 23 newsroom, Edison’s controller, Gorrister (Ken Swofford, Mr. Morlock on Fame), serves as a combination navigator/hacker/concierge, providing him with information and smoothing his passage.

When Edison attempts to interview the dead man’s widow, policemen inject her with a sedative and hustle her away. On orders from the Network 23 higher-ups, producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor, who, between this, Arrested Development, and The Larry Sanders Show, holds a rare trifecta in cult-television supporting roles) pulls Edison off the story. Gorrister, who is a miserable excuse for a controller, abandons Edison before extracting him safely from the situation. The second Edison’s camera is turned off, the police beat him up and toss him out of the building.

Furious about all this, Edison returns to the newsroom to punch Gorrister and yell at Murray for a while. Gorrister calls Edison a prima donna, which… yeah, that’s pretty much dead-on. Edison is cold, arrogant, prickly, and probably a nightmare to work with. He’s also smart as hell and thoroughly awesome, so it more than balances out.

In a posh conference room on one of the uppermost levels of the Network 23 skyscraper, the top executives, led by the soulless and slithery Grossberg (SNL’s Charles Rocket), hold an emergency meeting about Edison’s aborted investigation. The man in the apartment died after viewing one of  Network 23’s much-ballyhooed blipverts (the term “blipvert”, which is now in the mainstream lexicon, was first used in the 1985 made-for-TV movie), in which a thirty-second commercial is compressed into three seconds of rapid-fire subliminal images. Grossberg calls upon the architect of the blipvert project, Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), to explain the man’s death.

Bryce is a socially-maladroit teen genius who lives in a secret lair on a hidden level of Network 23. Second only to Max himself, Bryce might be Max Headroom’s most enduring creation. In spite of being a teenaged smartypants who speaks in technobabble, and in sharp contrast to every other teen genius on television during the eighties (hi, Wesley Crusher! I see you over there, wearing your burnt-orange sweater and seething in resentment!), Bryce manages to be intensely likeable, thanks to sharp writing and to Young’s engaging portrayal.

(Side note: In the 1985 made-for-TV movie, Bryce is played by English actor Paul Spurrier, whose take on the character is less “sometimes callous and inappropriate, but ultimately a good kid” and more “icy, murderous sociopath.” Which is kind of fascinating, don’t get me wrong, but I can see why, for a weekly primetime series, ABC would strive to make Bryce more viewer-friendly and less, y’know, outright evil.)

(Side note #2: My sister’s friend Ernie Cline wrote Ready Player One, a fantastic, gonzo novel set in a dystopic future. It’s chock full of geekily awesome references to all aspects of eighties pop culture; anyone who digs Max Headroom a) should absolutely read it, and b) almost certainly has already read it. Not that Ernie needs my help promoting his book—it was a New York Times bestseller, and the film rights have already been sold, thank you very much. Anyway, at one point in Ready Player One, the young protagonist, Wade, uses the alias “Bryce Lynch” because… well, hell, every young geek wants to be Bryce. Bryce is just cool. Not entirely sure how. He just is.)

Bryce explains blipverts to the assembled executives: Since they bombard the mind with fast-moving subliminal images, the brain could dangerously overstimulate nerve endings in certain vulnerable individuals, which could lead to unfortunate repercussions. The assembled executives view Bryce’s secret videotape of the incident, in which the doomed man watches a blipvert and explodes into bits. Despite this, Grossberg is determined to keep blipverts on the air to keep the network’s largest advertiser happy.

Murray brings in a new hotshot controller, poached from a rival network, to replace Gorrister: Theora Jones, who is smart, savvy, and a great match for Edison. Because she’s played by Amanda Pays, she’s also freaking gorgeous. Edison immediately puts her to work uncovering the network’s reasons for killing the blipvert story. With Theora’s help, Edison breaks into Bryce’s secret lair and snoops around.

(In the process of hacking the code to unlock Bryce’s door, Theora uncovers his date of birth, which is in 1988. So just to anchor this a little more in a fixed timeline, “20 minutes into the future” is more like sixteen years into the future, which would place it roughly around 2003. The series was impressively prescient in many ways, what with predicting the emergence of a media-obsessed society, the mounting addiction to technology, the ever-burgeoning disparity between the wealthy elite and the lower classes, the ratings-above-lives attitudes of the television networks…  Granted, most of those predictions didn’t require huge intuitive leaps, but on pretty much every count, Max Headroom guessed correctly.)

While snooping around Bryce’s lair, Edison discovers the videotape of the death-by-blipvert. Bryce, who is mid-bubble bath (his bathroom is kitted out with a swivel-mounted computer that can be used in the tub or on the toilet), spies on Edison, then sics Network 23’s security forces on him.

A slew of security guards pursue Edison through the building. Theora and Bryce have a hacking-skills throwdown while attempting to either guide Edison to safety (Theora), or throw more hurdles in his path (Bryce).  Bryce wins: As Edison tries to zip out of the garage on a stolen motorcycle, Bryce raises a speed bump and sends him flying headfirst into the parking arm, which is emblazoned with “MAX HEADROOM 2.3m.”

Grossberg is desperate to find out how much Edison knows about the blipvert project. Bryce, who has been experimenting around with mapping brains, offers to build an interactive computer-generated version of Edison that Grossberg can interrogate before the real Edison—badly injured, but hanging in there—regains consciousness.

And lo, and behold, Max Headroom is born.

The simulated version of Edison, who self-identifies as Max, is a scrambled, sardonic, constantly-glitching loose cannon, who cheerily informs Grossberg that he knows all about the lethal nature of the blipverts. Panicked, Grossberg summons scary-yet-entertaining thugs-for-hire Breughel (Jere Burns) and Mahler (Rick Ducommun) to dispose of Edison’s body. In the interest of tying up loose ends, he also orders them to kill Gorrister, whom he still believes is Edison’s controller.

Breughel and Mahler drop Gorrister (dead) and Edison (alive, albeit barely) off at Nightingale’s Body Bank, a gruesome cash-for-bodies repository run by a sweet little old lady in a nurse’s uniform (veteran character actress Billie Bird). Theora finally traces Edison to the Body Bank and brings him back to her apartment to recover.

Meanwhile, Max Headroom runs amuck at Network 23, commandeering the airwaves whenever the itch strikes him. While delighted that his network now owns “the world’s first completely programmable presenter,” Grossberg is horrified by the very real prospect that Max will spill the beans to the world about the killer blipverts. On the other hand, ratings are up 2% since Max took over, so…

Having recovered from his injuries, Edison pays a visit to Bryce and meets his weird-ass electronic alter-ego for the first time. Edison is relatively unfazed by the existence of Max. Grossberg now owns Bryce’s copy of the incriminating blipvert tape… but since Max has viewed the tape, Edison and Bryce can pull another copy straight from Max’s electronic memory banks.

Just as Grossberg is in the middle of announcing Edison’s untimely death at a press conference, Edison bursts in, rolls the blipvert tape, and exposes Grossberg’s dastardly deeds on live television. He then returns to the newsroom to triumphant applause from Murray and his co-workers. Because this otherwise excellent hour of television can’t quite figure out how to wrap this up with elegance and simplicity, Edison and Theora exchange weird, awkward smiles for a while until credits roll.

That’s how you do a pilot.

Granted, it had the advantage of modeling itself upon another completed project, Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future having served as a detailed and helpful dress rehearsal for this episode, but, man—it’s just rock-solid, start to finish, with gorgeous visuals, interesting characters, a tight script, and no wasted scenes. Pretty much flawless. They really don’t make ‘em like they used to.


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