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Max Headroom

December 22, 2012

max1Revisiting Max Headroom proved to be an interesting experience.  I watched the show when it first aired back in 1987 but, hadn’t seen it since due to a surprising lack of availability.  The first season consisted of six episodes, because it was a mid-season replacement.  The second season only ran for seven episodes with an eighth that was never aired in the US.  I have to say that the show holds up surprisingly well.  A lot of this has to do with the quite detailed environment created for the show on both a visual as well as story level.  One of the clever things they did was, instead of trying to make the technology of the world look futuristic, they made it look simplistic and functional.  This results in the imagery of the show standing up well because it has a “retro” look to it that will probably never lose its charm.

Max Headroom has a lot of things that make it very unique amongst genre shows, especially for the time it was released.  It was a cyberpunk show before the term had really become common place.  The story takes place in a distopian future (“20 minutes into the future” is subtitled at the opening of each episode) in some unidentified city where television stations seem to run everything, including elections for political office.  What little we see of the government beyond the elected “talking heads” is little more than a police force.  Another unique feature of the show is that it is about a Network 23 news reporter named Edison Carter.  In this future reporters are out on their own with a camera unit acting as there own camera man as well.  They have a communication link back to the studio building to a specific handler who can act as their guide by looking up maps or information that may be needed for an interview.  As a side note, the computer wireframe building maps where real computer generated images. The namesake of the show, Max Headroom, is a digitally downloaded copy of Edison Carter’s brain that has taken on a life of its own.  While Max resides in the mainframe of Network 23 he is able to extend his reach out via network links to other systems.  Some people at the time believed that Max was an actual computer generated image but, he was actually the same actor who played Edison with some rather impressive make-up, camera work, and computer generated background.

One thing that stood out in my head about the show was that it got a lot of its predictions right.  Stuff like extreme sports, computer avatars (Max, althopugh he is an AI, definitey looks like an avatar of Edison Carter), and the omnipresence of communication and security cameras are some of the things that come to mind at the moment.  This was almost certainly due to the fact that the series main writer was an avid reader of science fiction at the time.  While it did get many things right, it also made the classic mistake of not seeing major advances in technology in that hand held computing appliances are largely unseen in the show.  There is one point towards the end of the run where Theora pulls out a portable phone and, before dialing, extends the 18 inch radio style antenna.  This is not all that huge a deal as Carter had regular communication with Theora through his mobile camera at all times so, the lack of cell phones was something that can almost pass un-noticed.

The first season of the show was pretty amazingly anti-establishment.  Max wouldn’t pull many punches with his dialogue.  Given that the show was effectively biting the hand that fed it, I was surprisied the show made it onto network television at all.  The reason it did was that ABC was the bottom network at the time and need an edgy artistic show to draw more talent to ultimately be able to compete with the other two networks.  The second season was noticably less edgy.  There are a couple of episodes, Dieties and The Return of Grossburg, with such coventional storylines that they date the series which is in stark contrast to the first season.  The other thing I wasn’t happy with was bringing a rival network into the mix.  The first season did such a good job of building the world that I totally bought into the 1000 channels of the established universe without having to be shown first hand.  This is also sort of broke some of the original formula of the show in that there was an external foe for Carter to go after instead of Network 23’s own indiscretions which, in turn, took away from the anti-establishement tone of the series.  Not all of the second season was a loss.  I thought Academy worked particularly well and most of the rest of the episodes were reasonable enough.  Still, I can see why the series didn’t make it especially given the cost of production.  Being put in the death spot of Friday nights probably didn’t help either.

I realize this review is running quite long but, there are a couple other things I wanted to quickly mention.  I’ll start with the show itself and the two actors that I was surprised to see.  The first was Bill Maher who appeared in one episode.  Apparently, he made a brief stab an acting career that never really took flight (if the rest of his performances where like the one in Max this would not be all that surprising).  It was surprising because I didn’t know about this part of his resume.  The other appearance was that of Andreas Katsulas who is probably better known to most genre tv fans as G’Kar of Babylon 5.  This was a surprise because I totally didn’t recognize him without his make-up until he spoke.  In fact,  when he uttered his first line in the series I wasn’t looking at the screen at the time but, my attention immediately snapped back upon hearing G’Kar’s distinctive voice.  I then had to rewind the DVD to find which actor it was.  It was great to see him in a pre-Babylon 5 role (I really found his hair off-setting, to be honest).

Finally, I just wanted to steer people towards checking out the fifth disc in the boxed set.  It is just extras but, while not all that fancy (really just a bunch of interviews), I found them informative enough to hold my interest.  So, if like me you plan to take a step back 20 minutes into the future, I would recommend you check out the additional material as well.

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From → Actors, Reviews

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