There’s a scene in Back to the Future Part II in which Marty McFly, having traveled to the year 2015, walks into a retro diner. Marty is greeted by a digital maitre d’ with white hair, a gentle voice, and smooth, almost plastic skin. “Welcome to the Cafe ‘80s,” he says, “where it’s always morning in America, even in the afternoo-noo-noon,” the final word skipping out of his mouth as though recorded on a scratched CD.
The maitre d’ was a mashup of two signifiers that Hollywood, in 1989, imagined would come to represent the decade. “Morning in America,” of course, belonged to President Ronald Reagan. The plastic skin, skipping voice, and pixilated appearance belonged to Max Headroom, the hyperactive, square-jawed computer program and titular star of the ABC series Max Headroom, which arrived on DVD this month, its first time on any home-video format.
That a primetime fad—Max Headroom lasted just two seasons—was considered on par with a leader of the free world as a mascot for the decade says a lot about the pop-cultural splash the seriesmade when it premiered in March 1987. That it has taken more than 20 years for Max to get a home-video release says a lot about how quickly that splash faded after the show was canceled a year later. But it would be wrong write Max off as a quirky, stut-stut-stuttering relic doomed to be mentioned by Mo Rocca on VH1 specials. Look past the Wayfarers and the neon-striped background and Max Headroom reveals itself as one of the most prescient television shows of its decade (unless you interpret Dallas as an extended metaphor for the dangers of oil dependency).
Max himself was the zany breakout star of Max Headroom, its Barney Fife. But revisiting the series on DVD, one of the first things you notice is that in most episodes Max appears only periodically, especially in the first season. More often, he functions as a kind of postmodern Greek chorus, offering his snarky opinion on whatever crisis his human counterparts find themselves in.
The actual hero of Max Headroom is Edison Carter. Played by Matt Frewer (who, in heavy makeup, also played Headroom), Carter is an investigative journalist working to uncover conspiracies, corruption, and chaos in a dystopian future the show describes as being set “20 minutes into the future,” a time when television has become, in essence, the governing body of society. Programming executives sit in darkened war rooms straight out of Dr. Strangelove, plotting new ways to control the masses, including subliminal messaging and fabricated terrorist attacks.
Most weeks, Carter attempts to expose these plots with the help of his beautiful technical adviser, Theora (Amanda Pays), and his producer, Murray (Jeffrey Tambor). Then there’s Max—essentially Carter’s digital id. Max was born when Carter, investigating the shady practices of his employer, Network 23, is knocked unconscious and dragged by Network 23 agents to the laboratory of Wunderkind hacker Bryce Lynch (Chris Young). Lynch, under orders to find out how much Carter knows, downloads Carter’s memory into Network 23’s computer, where it takes on a life of its own as a fast-talking, square-jawed cultural commentator who exists entirely within TV screens and computers.
Max Headroom’s themes might not sound especially groundbreaking today: Accusing television of brainwashing society is about as shocking as calling politicians, like, a bunch of phonies, man. But in the Reagan years, America was still getting wise to growing media saturation and to the blurred reality TV can create. The year Max Headroom premiered, James L. Brooks’ Broadcast News, in whichreporter William Hurt uses questionable editing to manipulate the news, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Two years earlier, Don DeLillo’s White Noise, with its constant hum of radio and television, won the National Book Award. Two years later, The Simpsons introduced a family of couch potatoes who watched the razor-sharp TV satires of Itchy and Scratchy and Troy McClure.
Max Headroom was one of the first network shows to engage with these issues, and in doing so made some eerily accurate predictions about where contemporary television was heading. In the show’s very first episode, “Blipverts,” Carter uncovers a top-secret program by advertisers to condense 30-second ads into three-second, high-intensity commercials, which occasionally overloaded audiences’ central nervous systems and caused them to explode. The spontaneous combustion thankfully remains a bit of a stretch, but anyone who’s experienced a House of Paynead sliding into the lower third of the screen during a TBS rerun of Family Guy or sat through a sponsored Hulu pre-roll knows the lengths advertisers will go to tap into the shortening attention spans of contemporary audiences. In the episode “Academy,” the lives of citizens are broadcast on TV, their fates determined by audience votes—an anticipation of contemporary reality TV. Other episodes deal with issues like broadcast violence (ratings-hungry networks present a deadly sport) and illegal downloading.
No character is as withering in his criticisms of the TV industry as Max, who pops up unexpectedly to deliver long, amusing rants against Network 23 and the rest of the media. “Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV?” asks Max in one episode. He waits a beat. “Don’t know the answer? Hm. Successful, isn’t it?”
Over the last decade, many series have tweaked the television industry, albeit in ways less ponderous than portraying one man’s fight against evil, omnipotent media conglomerates. In our era of 30 Rock, Extras, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Entourage,and Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show biting the hand that feeds it seems about as edgy as Kate Winslet playing a self-obsessed version of herself, well-aware that the real her will come out looking more humble than ever. But when Max Headroom premiered, the closest TV had come to criticizing itself with any regularity was Lou Grant’s loveably grumpy complaints on The Mary Tyler Moore Show,which were usually resolved by the end of the episode, won over by Mary’s (and TV’s) greater good.
In his review of Max Headroom’s premiere episode, John J. O’Connor of the New York Times doubted whether real-life network executives would “put up with a character who finds much of the television business less than edifying.” But ABC did keep Max on the air for a second season—less willing to welcome the show were audiences. Headroom presented viewers with storylines about spontaneously combusting humans at a time when Americans seemed more inclined to watch Angela Lansbury solve murders in small-town Maine or John Larroquette prosecute misdemeanors in the big city. By1988, Headroom was off the air, beaten in the ratings by its competitor, the iconic Miami Vice. That show’s pastels and blazers became shorthand for the 1980s, but did virtually nothing to address America’s growing obsession with and reliance on screens, be they television or computer. That was Max’s jurisdiction.
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