Max Headroom proved to be eerily prophetic.

William D. Lee's picture

Hulk Hogan. Mr. T. Optimus Prime. That "Where's the Beef" lady. In the pantheon of 80's icons, they stand at the top. You can also count Max Headroom, the stuttering talking head played by Matt Frewer. Headroom was created at the height of the MTV era in 1985 by British network, Channel 4. The virtual personality was the host of "The Max Headroom Show" where he interviewed celebrities and introduced music videos. He also became the pitchman for Coca-Cola's ill-fated New Coke, telling consumers to, "Ca-ca-ca-catch the wave!" Ironically, computer animation at the time wasn't sophisticated enough to fully realize Max Headroom. Instead, he was created through old school methods. Frewer was filmed with make-up and prosthetics while the backgrounds were done through traditional animation.

Headroom was quickly spun off into a made-for-TV film called, "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future." Its success carried across the Atlantic Ocean where the film was reshot as a pilot for a new series on ABC.

"Max Headroom" debuted in 1987 as a mid-season replacement. Set "20 minutes into the future," the world of the series was a dystopian cyberpunk realm ruled by television. Schools and churches no longer exist as the public gets its education and faith from the airwaves. Networks and their corporate sponsors were the true powers of the world while the government is simply a puppet organization. Elections are about as phony and predetermined as professional wrestling. TV sets no longer have off switches as they are considered illegal.

Frewer stars as maverick journalist, Edison Carter, a reporter for Network 23 who isn't afraid to ruffle the feathers of the city's most powerful people. In the pilot, "Blipverts," ruthless network executive, Grossberg (the late Charles Rocket), develops a new form of advertisement that crams a 30-second commercial into a scant few seconds. However, the informational overload has caused a small number of viewers to spontaneously combust.

Getting too close to the truth, Carter attempts to escape from Grossberg's security on a motorcycle. He loses control and crashes into an overhead blockade, the last words he sees are, "Max. Headroom." Determined to discover what Carter knows, Grossberg assigns technological wunderkind, Bryce Lynch (Chris Young), to tap into the comatose reporter's mind. Bryce downloads Carter's memories into a computer program thus giving birth to Max Headroom. This pixilated copy develops into an independent being with a more outlandish attitude than his progenitor.

The cast of "Max Headroom" also includes: Jeffrey Tambor as Murray, Carter's editor and producer; Amanda Pays as Theora Jones, Carter's controller at the network; W. Morgan Sheppard as Blank Reg who heads up the underground Big Time Television; and George Coe as Ben Cheviot, the somewhat sympathetic CEO of Network 23.

Shout has released both seasons of "Max Headroom" in this 5-disc boxset. The episodes includes are:

-Disc 1-
"Blipverts" – Edison investigates a mysterious death that may be linked to a new form of advertising by his network.

"Rakers" – While searching for Theora's wayward brother, Carter stumbles upon a violent underground sport which would probably be considered an X-Game today.

"Body Banks" – Edison helps a desperate member of the Fringe search for his girlfriend who was abducted as part of a scheme to harvest organs for the rich.

"Security Systems" – Edison is framed for the serious crime of credit fraud (which is worse than murder) after he delves too deep during his investigation into a powerful conglomerate.

-Disc 2-
"War" – Edison and his team look into how their rival network, Break-Thru TV, is scooping everyone on the recent activities of a violent terrorist cell.

"The Blanks" – When the authorities begin rounding up Blanks (individuals unregistered in the computer databanks), someone strikes back by threatening to destroy the city's technological infrastructure.

"Academy" – Blank Reg is framed for hijacking network transmission, a crime punishable by death. Edison tracks the leads to a school for the gifted once attended by Bryce.

-Disc 3-
"Deities" – An old flame of Edison's is now the head of a church promising its followers a second life inside the virtual world.

"Grossberg's Return" – Now working for rival Network 66, Grossberg schemes to rig the elections in order for his own candidate to win.

"Dream Thieves" – Long before Christopher Nolan, an upstart network look to steal people's dreams in order to broadcast them, but the process has dire consequences. Look for an appearance by Jenette Goldstein from "Aliens."

"Whackets" – Blank Reg has a massive hit on his hands with a game show called Whacketts. Unbeknownst to him, the show has become popular due to subliminal messages inserted by an unscrupulous programmer played by Bill Maher.

-Disc 4-
"Neurostim" – Zik Zak, Network 23's sponsor, attempts to cut out the middle man with bracelets that beam signals directly into the minds of consumers, forcing them to compulsively purchase their products.

"Lessons" – The censor bureau being rounding up Blanks who have been pirating educational programming intended only for the wealthy.

"Baby Grobags" – Edison and Theora uncover a grotesque scheme by Network 66 to steal genetically engineered babies.

The video is presented in its original fullscreen aspect ratio. The show's creators experimented with different types of film and video to create a unique look for "Max Headroom." The picture quality looks like the sort of thing you'd see in syndication during the 80's. The transfer is pretty clean though rough around the edges.

The audio is presented in Dolby Digital 2.0. Sound is good with dialogue coming in crystal clear.

The bonus material, which can be watched separately or with a ‘Play All' option, is located on Disc 5.

Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom (1:00:07) is an informative documentary with the show's creators as they discuss the origins of Max Headroom. They also discuss the series taking us from the beginning to its cancellation and its place in modern pop culture.

Looking Back at the Future (35:31) is a roundtable discussion with members of the cast. The participants are Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei, Amanda Pays, and Chris Young with producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach as moderator.

The Big-Time Blanks (12:06) is a sit-down interview with Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei who talk about their characters, Blank Reg and Dominique.

The Science Behind the Fiction (11:56) is an interview with co-creator George Stone who discusses the science and technology of the show.

The Writers Remember (10:47) is an interview with story editors Michael Cassutt and Steve Roberts who talk about their work behind the scenes.

Producing Dystopia (7:51) is an interview with producer Brian Frankish who speaks about locating the futuristic sets of Max Headroom in Los Angeles and hiring the various production designers and make-up artists.

Noticeably missing from the extras is Matt Frewer. The original "20 Minutes into the Future" film was also not included due to rights issues.

Much like "Network" was in the 70's, "Max Headroom" proved to be eerily prophetic. Media manipulation by the powers that be, corporate-owned news, and the pervasiveness of technology were all themes of the show. Sadly, the show burned bright, but only for a brief period. In its second season, ABC moved it to Friday nights against "Miami Vice" and "Dallas." Max was simply no match for Sonny Crockett and J.R. Ewing. While the show's technology and effects are incredibly dated, the message still reverberates in modern society.


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