TV shows are always great when they dare to bite the hand that feeds them. The glory days of Letterman was when he dared to mock the pinheads at GE and NBC. The Monkees toyed with their faux pop star status. Even Rocky and Bullwinkle popped off about their TV reality. The rebel with control of the airwaves makes it worth your while to watch. You know they have something more important to say than, “Support our sponsors.”
In 1987 a show arrived on ABC that didn’t merely nip, but chomped down to the bone. Max Headroom took a harsh look at the future of network news and television entertainment. It saw a dystopian future where corporations battle using their TV networks as a weapon. Max Headroom: The Complete Series gives all 14 episodes that didn’t took us beyond 20 minutes in the future.
“Blipverts” brings us into the murky world of Network 23. Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) races around the city on a helicopter grabbing combative footage for his highly rated news show. Ratings mean more than ever since shows have immediate numbers which determines the ad dollars. His support is “controller” Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) and Murray (Jeffrey Tambor), the head of the news department. The first episode has him on the track of a mystery involving TV viewers’ heads going boom. Turns out that the chairman of his own network (Charles Rocket) has teamed up with a child prodigy (Chris Young) to create Blipverts. This new technology allows them to cram dozens of commercials into a few seconds. More money in less time is what they see. But for some people, the rapid images cause their brains to explode like victims in Scanners.
Is Edison willing to blow the whistle on his own employer? He finds himself hunted down by his company’s security guards. This leads to him being knocked into a coma. The prodigy makes a computer scan of Edison’s brain to see how much of his memory of blipverts remains. Ultimately this scan takes on a computerized life as Max Headroom. Max becomes an annoying commentator who likes to pop up in Network 23 programming to give view of the world. For those curious, the original “20 Minutes Into the Future” British pilot is like this episode. They even reuse footage.
“Rakers” predicts the future of the X Games. Kids using motorized skateboards battle inside an empty swimming pool. There’s a few TV folks eager to bring this bloodsport to TV. “Body Banks” spooks us with a world where organ donation isn’t quite a voluntary process. A doctor finds people who aren’t in the federal computer and harvests them since nobody cares. “Security Systems” has the world’s biggest security corporation fighting off a hostile takeover.
Edison swears something is fishy about the deal. His life quickly stinks when his ID and credit vanishes. He’s become an unexpected blank. “War” has the rival Breakthru Television getting great footage of terrorist attacks around the city. While Network 23’s overlords rage about getting scooped, Edison discovers the secret of Breakthru being at the right place at the right time. “The Blanks” lets the undocumented citizens rise up against a government that considers their being off the grid a felony.
What’s upsetting is that part of their protest involves hacking in Network 23. “Academy” makes the prodigy hunt down hackers at his old school. He doesn’t want to fink out his people so he sends after Big Time Television run by Blank Reg (W. Morgan Sheppard). It’s up to Edison to straighten things out.
“Deities” brings televangelism to the next level with a church that promises a video resurrection. They’re got technology which will let their followers create their own Max Headroom except they promise to put your new self into a new body. “Grossberg’s Return” marks Charles Rocket return to the scene. His Network 66 is backing a radical candidate against Network 23’s man. Two rival news channels pushing candidates on their viewer is what cable has become now.
“Dream Thieves” creates an industry that lets people experience other folks’ dreams. Something ugly is going on in the new business. “Whacketts” creates a TV show so addictive that people want to rescue their TV sets during a disaster. The show is everything to them. Kind of like how people get about True Blood.
“Neurostim” lets a fast food chain give out a mind controlling bracelet to create loyal customers. “Lessons” touches upon the topic of pay-per-view educational programming. How can poor kids learn when they can’t afford the cable bill? “Baby Grobags” lets couples use a plastic bag for a womb. Nowadays they rent Indian women for this service as seen in Google Baby. In this instance, a baby is stolen so she can be part of a TV show about smart babies.
The series was canceled before “Baby Grobags” had a chance to air. While Max Headroom did well during a short six episode run, the genius at ABC brought the series back to play against Dallas and Miami Vice. It didn’t have a chance. The series probably also confused audiences that had grown used to Max Headroom pitching Coke with his wit. The action was about Edison Carter.
People tuning in for Max only got glimpses of the guy. He’s was a cyber guest star on his series. Which is a good thing since his schtick wore out quick. Max Headroom was a radical series that had something to say about the future of TV. Too bad nobody was watching to heed the warnings.
“Blipverts,” “Rakers,” “Body Banks,” “Security Systems,” “War,” “The Blanks,” “Academy,” “Deities,” “Grossberg’s Return,” “Dream Thieves,” “Whackets,” “Neurostim,” “Lessons” and “Baby Grobags.”
The video is 1.33:1 full frame. The color transfers will finally let you retire that EP speed VHS tape from when Bravo ran the series nearly a decade ago. The image quality is on par with Miami Vice since so much of the show was done with smoke and various gels over the camera. The audio is Dolby Digital Stereo. The sound is good even though they got really arty with the futuristic noises. The episodes are subtitled.
Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom (60:01) is a really detailed history of how this character was created. They didn’t create Max Headroom until after they shot the British pilot movie. Turns out they couldn’t make a real CGI talking head. While there’s no clips of the various early shows, we do get a few photos of Frewer putting on the fake face and the fiberglass suit.
Looking Back At The Future (35:11) brings together cast members Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei and Chris Young. They’re interviewed by Javier Grillo-Marxuach (creator of The Middleman). They enjoy being back in each other’s company. Shame Matt Frewer couldn’t make the discussion.
The Big-Time Blanks (12:06) reunites Morgan Sheppard (Blank Reg) and Concetta Tomei. He got the role cause he’d shave his head.
The Science Behind the Fiction (11:56) lets co-creator George Stone talk about computers at the time.
The Writers Remember (10:47) presents the ways Executive Story Editor Steve Roberts and Story Editor Michael Cassutt came up with the scripts. The duo contrast in style.
Producing Dystopia (7:51) allows producer Brian Frankish to explain the troubles of looking 20 minutes into the future.
Max Headroom: The Complete Series gives us the entire American version of the series. While people remember Max Headroom as the jittery fake CGI head on a TV monitor, his series said a lot more than “Buy New Coke.” The sad news is that there’s a lot of Max Headroom’s history not on the boxset.
There isn’t the original 20 Minutes Into the Future British pilot episode. Also missing is his original Music video show, his Cinemax Talkshow, his Christmas special, his Coke ads and his music video with Art of Noise. From what I’ve heard the rights to this footage is a legal and monetary nightmare. If you’re truly curious, there’s ways to locate this archival material. This is all about the TV American TV series. It was daring for a network TV show to even consider airing this series. This is TV boxset of the season.
Shout! Factory presents Max Headroom: The Complete Series. Starring: Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei and Chris Young. Boxset Contents: 14 episodes on 5 DVDs. Released on DVD: August 10, 2010.
Joe Corey is the writer and director of "Danger! Health Films" currently streaming on Night Flight and Amazon Prime. He's the author of "The Seven Secrets of Great Walmart People Greeters." This is the last how to get a job book you'll ever need. He was Associate Producer of the documentary "Moving Midway." He's worked as local crew on several reality shows including Candid Camera, American's Most Wanted, Extreme Makeover Home Edition and ESPN's Gaters. He's been featured on The Today Show and CBS's 48 Hours. Dom DeLuise once said, "Joe, you look like an axe murderer." He was in charge of research and programming at the Moving Image Archive.