TV on DVD: “Max Headroom: The Complete Series”

Written by Television, TV on DVD

Somewhere there are governments and media outlets walking hand in hand, profiting off the poor who haven’t a voice in this society, and collaborating with the rich and powerful to make sure it stays that way. While this hardly sounds like science fiction in 2010, way back in 1987 amid the glow of Reagan-Bush politics, such a scenario could only mean one thing – you were now twenty minutes into the future.

Max Headroom was a cult legend before the show ever appeared on ABC networks in the United States. The character started as little more than a jazzed-up version of a music video vee-jay in the UK, but in creating the character the forces behind it realized they had a lot of fascinating backstory added to the simple premise. Before long, they had the network convinced of the potential and a Dystopian television movie was made about the rise of the world’s first digital lifeform, the anarchistic gadfly Max Headroom. Max wound up as a spokesman for Coca-Cola, a featured performer on The Art Of Noise’s track “Paranomia” and, before too long, was considered for a series “across the pond” in the United States. This should have been huge.

There were only two problems with this ascent. The first is that, in the mid-to-late 1980’s, television audiences weren’t ready for cautionary tales about bleak future worlds. Blade Runner was still considered a colossal flop, not gaining its full cult status yet. The same goes for Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. The visions of two cultures, the almighty rich and the disenfranchised poor whose only value seemed to be in whatever their organs would fetch on the market, were radical, disturbing, and certainly scary for the young demographic ABC seemed to be aiming for. The second problem is that the show was complex and didn’t really like having to explain itself.

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That was what made Max Headroom so special. The character is the television world avatar of reporter Edison Carter, the last good reporter on a network that suffers his meddling only because his ratings are consistently high. When he stumbles onto a secret, killer subliminal commercials that cause couch potatoes to explode, an attempt on his life is made. To retrieve the info in his unconscious brain, he’s hooked up to a machine meant to extract his thought content. Instead, they extract a fully formed alter ego in Max Headroom, the name coming from a parking garage gate that slams on Carter’s head during his fateful escape attempt.

Max cannot be killed or controlled and he can literally channel-surf, popping up all around the dial. He is the unhinged, rebellious side of Edison Carter who, despite disliking the system, attempts to work within it. For a television show to be so weird and subversive was a foreign concept in those days. After all, here was a TV show that often espoused a philosophy that it wasn’t always wise to believe, or watch at all, TV shows. For the fans, this was the broadcast equivalent of a punk rock manifesto. For the rest of the viewership, it was strange, incomprehensible, not as much fun to watch as Married with Children. The series lasted a measly fourteen episodes, thrown into the timeslot juggle, and eventually against CBS juggernaut Dallas. Back then, that was the end of a TV series, dead as an analog doornail.

Thanks to Warner Home Video, in conjunction with Shout! Factory, Max Headroom is back, all fourteen episodes represented as well as an informative clutch of documentaries with the people that made them. The first thing the viewer notices is that, in spite of the “20 minutes into the future” tagline, the show looks dead-center 1980’s, big hair and bad suits included. But once you get past the anachronistic tics, Max Headroom reveals itself scarily prescient. In a world of Google Ads that tailor themselves to your search and e-mail content, and Google Earth eyes in the sky, and television shows starring “real people” doing “real life” the satire of the program all backs around like a Moebius strip – our future 20 minutes have caught up with us.

But is it fun? Actually, yes it is. One side of your brain will get goopy and nostalgic for the show while the other will marvel at all the nastiness and slyness the creators got away with. They knew full well that they were alternately shaking and biting the hands that fed them, and if you were psyched about going on this rollercoaster ride, you could be just as intrigued by all the insidious bits that went over your head when you watched in high school – or didn’t. As I recall, I was the only kid in my school that watched, and got, Max Headroom, and that exclusivity made the program unique. Here was a show that wasn’t for them, but in a cross-eyed fashion might well have been a show about them. If you’re unfamiliar with the show, this set is a fine chance to see what you were missing. If you were a fan but only got the show on a cursory, action-adventure level, the set gives you a chance to see all the stuff you really missed.

Max Headroom: The Complete Series is available from Amazon.Com.