I recently rented the DVD set of the 1987 Max Headroom TV series from Netflix. This is a show I watched in its first run, and I remembered being rather fond of it, finding it innovative and enjoyable and regretting that it was cancelled after only 13 episodes (out of 14 that were made). And it’s certainly been acclaimed in the years since for its innovation. It was a cyberpunk show just a few years after the term “cyberpunk” was coined — just about the only case I know of where a television show was right on the cusp of a new science-fictional development rather than lagging a decade or two behind prose SF. It was prophetic in predicting broadcasting trends like a proliferation of hundreds of channels, the 24-hour news cycle, the existence of a global computer/entertainment network dominating people’s lives, and the manipulation of the news by corporations. And it was daring for being a network television show whose whole raison d’etre was to satirize and critique television networks. Not to mention that it essentially launched the career of genre stalwart Matt Frewer, who played the heroic journalist Edison Carter and his computer-generated alter ego, Max Headroom.
(For those who aren’t in the know, in real life, Max Headroom was created as a novel kind of host for a British music-video show. The idea was to use something completely computer-generated rather than the usual human hosts, a literal “talking head.” They didn’t have the CGI technology to pull that off for real, so they put Matt Frewer in prosthetic makeup simulating the slick, angular look of ’80s computer graphics and used editing tricks to make him jerk and stu-stu-stutter so he’d appear artificial. In order to explain this host character, they developed a pilot film set in a Blade Runner/Brazil-inspired future in which investigative journalist Edison Carter was injured in pursuit of a story and had his mind scanned and copied into a computer in order to find out what he knew, creating Max, a duplicate of Edison’s mind that was a little bit off and had a far more eccentric personality, as a result of having the entirety of the world’s TV content pouring through his mind, or some such thing. Basically he was a distillation of all TV, a pastiche of slick TV pitchmen, simultaneously a child of and a critic of pop culture. ABC executives saw the pilot and bought it as a US series, remaking the pilot and recasting everyone except leads Frewer and Amanda Pays and supporting player William Morgan Sheppard. Although Max was far more successful as a music video/talk-show host and Coca-Cola pitchman.)
On seeing the show again after nearly a quarter-century, though, I find it hasn’t aged well. It wasn’t as impressive as I remembered. The writing is often sloppy. In the pilot, teen genius Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), Max’s creator, spends much of the episode trying to kill Edison on orders from his sleazy boss, which is what leads to Max’s creation in the first place. And yet when Edison meets him later in the episode, this kid who was sociopathically chuckling during his attempted murder of Edison mere minutes before suddenly says “I’m glad you didn’t die,” and for the rest of the series, Bryce is Edison’s ally and tech support. Sure, he was occasionally portrayed as amoral — a blatant example of the fictional stereotype of the genius who’s a walking computer with no human feeling — but the total lack of any consequences or even acknowledgment of his attempted homicide is very awkward.
A lot about the show is very broad — the satire, the cartoony portrayal of Max — and in hindsight it feels fairly crude. The portrayal of the logistics of Edison’s job was awkward — it’s hard to believe that he could just cut into any other programming with a “live and direct” story, or that he’d so often go on the air without yet having a full picture of what he was reporting on (although, admittedly, that doesn’t stop a lot of modern telejournalists). And sometimes the writing is stilted in ways that you can tell are the result of network executives having no faith in the intelligence of the viewer. For instance, in one episode, the police enter a suspect’s home and discover that she had an off switch on her television. The cops react in shock to the fact, and one of them says “She’ll get twenty years for that.” Any conscious viewer would understand at this point that in the world of Max Headroom, it’s illegal to have an off switch on your TV. And yet we then cut to another angle and hear the off-camera cop’s voiceover adding, “Off switches are illegal!” As if the other cops he was talking to didn’t already know that. Granted, that’s an instance of the show being held back by its network, but there’s enough about the show’s own writing that doesn’t work as well as it could.
In particular, for a show called Max Headroom, it isn’t generally about Max Headroom. It would’ve been more accurate to call it Edison Carter. Sure, there are episodes where they manage to make good use of Max as a character or a concept — either someone wants to obtain Max’s unique technology for some reason, or Max is the only one who can get into a bad guy’s system, or Max is needed as a distraction. There’s one particularly good episode, “Neurostim,” in which Edison’s relationship with Max has become strained but Max is the only one who can save him from an addictive VR product, so they have to have a meeting of minds and hash out their conflict (although it kind of fizzles out at the end). But there are too many other episodes where Max contributes nothing to the story beyond popping into a scene and making wisecracks or pithy observations about the story’s events. Sometimes his comments serve to address the theme of the episode, but sometimes they serve no purpose but to give Max some screen time in a story that has nothing to do with him.
Also, I have to say, I think Matt Frewer doesn’t work as well as a heroic lead as he does as a quirky character actor. He was cast as Max first, of course, and played Edison because of that. But he’s just a bit too gawky in appearance and voice to be entirely convincing as a hard-hitting, ultra-manly, fearless investigative reporter. Or rather, it’s not that he wasn’t reasonably good in the role, it’s just that it didn’t feel like the right role for him, that it didn’t let him do what he does best (although he had Max for that). As for his leading lady Amanda Pays, she was very lovely and had that wonderful throaty British contralto… but as I discovered when I bought the DVD set of The Flash, she’s kind of one-note as an actress, never really varying her delivery or showing much emotional range. So as lovely as the timbre of her voice is, I tend to get tired of listening to her if I watch too many episodes in a row.
Still, in the show’s defense, I guess a lot of the reason it doesn’t age well is because it broke new ground that subsequent shows have built on and expanded on. These days, we’ve grown used to TV shows mocking their own networks — The Simpsons has spent a generation poking fun at the FOX network — but at the time, it was daring and subversive. And if the future it predicted seems quaint in some ways now, it’s only because so much of what it predicted has become our everyday reality, just in a different form.
And a lot of its writing problems can be chalked up to growing pains as the writers tried to figure out this new world and how to tell stories in it. The writing did get stronger and more consistent as the show went on, and they overall managed to find more ways to integrate Max into the stories, although he could’ve been left completely out of the final two episodes without altering them materially.
It’s interesting to note, by the way, how many of this show’s cast members went on to appear on various Star Trek series, or were already veterans of the original series — regulars or near-regulars such as Frewer, George Coe, W. Morgan Sheppard, and Concetta Tomei, recurring players like Sherman Howard (billed as Howard Sherman), Rosalind Chao, and Andreas Katsulas, and guests like Joseph Ruskin, John Winston, Robert O’Reilly, Lycia Naff, John Fleck, James Greene, Gregory Itzin, and Jenette Goldstein. (And Lee Wilkof, one of the semiregular Network 23 board members, did a role in a Trek audio book once.) Once or twice, we got as many as five past or future Trek players in one Max episode. Just thought I’d mention it…