Nearly 30 years ago, Max Headroom took viewers 20 minutes into the future

Nearly 30 years ago, Max Headroom took viewers 20 minutes into the future

Welcome to the TV Roundtable, where some of TV Club’s writers tackle episodes that all deal with a central theme. Now through July: TV we loved as kids.

Max Headroom, “Blipverts (season one, episode one; originally aired 3/31/1987)

In which Network 23’s newest talking head has a mind of his own…

This is a weird declaration to make at the top of a discussion about Max Headroom—one of television’s most inventive commentaries on its own influence and pervasiveness—but I grew up in a TV household. Our longest-standing viewing appointments spanned the nearly two decades that passed between the beginning of Star Trek: The Next Generation and the end of Star Trek: Enterprise, a connection to Starfleet that stemmed from Dad’s love of the original series. Given my age during most of these experiences, these memories are primarily impressionistic. But sharing these shows with my parents (and later my brother) made them stick with me—as did the endless possibilities of science fiction. 

That’s even truer of Max Headroom, which debuted in 1987, the same year as Star Trek: The Next Generation. I was 2 years old when Channel 23 first hijacked the ABC signal, so any real impact the show had on me and my viewing habits occurred years later, when you could still stumble upon Max Headroom on one cable outlet or another. But the flashy presence and wiseacre humor of the title character lingered—more so than the show’s harrowing near-future setting, which proved oddly disposable when Max exploded into a full-blown icon of the greed-is-good ’80s.

The character had a torturous path to American television, beginning with the British TV movie Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into The Future. He then had his own music-video show on the U.K.’s Channel 4, which led to a brief stint at the helm of Coca-Cola’s attempt to salvage its “New Coke” formula. What we’re watching here is a cut-down version of the TV movie, which repurposes some footage from 20 Minutes Into The Future while recasting a few key roles and restaging a number of the scenes. The story remains the same, though: In a dystopian society where it’s illegal to turn off a TV, a handful of networks scramble for the biggest slice of their ever-watching audience. The top dog in this world is Network 23, the home of hard-hitting first-person reports from journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer). Nearly killed while gathering evidence for a story that would reflect poorly on his employer, Edison’s consciousness is duplicated in the Network 23 mainframe, an artificial intelligence that names itself after the last thing the reporter saw before blacking out: the “MAX HEADROOM” label on a descending barricade.

That info dump is only slightly less elegant than the many expositional passages of “Blipverts,” an hour of TV that’s laden with cyberpunk technobabble. Honestly, I’m a little disappointed with this look back at the series premiere: It moves much slower than I remember, and being produced on a British TV budget means a lot of ’80s sci-fi shortcuts. (To paraphrase Crow T. Robot: Dim lighting and exposed duct work! It must be… THE FUTURE!) And while Matt Frewer has found his niche as a sort of basic-cable Jeffrey Combs, slinking in and out of the shadows of genre series like Orphan Black, Eureka, and Supernatural, an action hero he is not.

But I wasn’t a preschooler with a lenticular Max Headroom belt because this show boasted crackerjack storytelling or thrilling combat choreography. I was a preschooler with a lenticular Max Headroom belt because this was exactly the kind of show that could spawn such ludicrous merchandise: It’s all visuals and atmosphere, and despite the occasionally musty computer graphic, Max Headroom still has a smart, singular look. I especially love the way it frames its human characters like they’re stuck in a box like Max—when you’re depicting a world dominated by television, you may as well render every citizen as a talking head. It’s especially effective anytime this happens to Charles Rocket, whose Dick Tracy chin makes him look like a computer rendering, too.

“Blipverts” isn’t the best representation of Max Headroom, but it’s the episode that’s lingered in my memory the longest. I remember being both scandalized and entertained by its central coverup when TechTV (which later merged with G4) reran the series in the early ’00s. There’s an echo of Cronenbergian body horror in the demise of the exploding Network 23 viewer, and 23’s board of directors behave like they’re climbing the corporate ladder to a position at Omni Consumer Products. (The original RoboCop was released a few months after the debut of “Blipverts”—1987 was a big year for on-screen sci-fi.) Restricted by budget and broadcast standards, “Blipverts” is nowhere near as visceral as those comparisons imply, though I wonder if it would’ve received a creepy-crawly booster shot if Max Headroom was produced 10 or 15 years later. Like a lot of short-lived series, Max Headroom frequently receives the “ahead of its time” stamp, and to me that goes beyond the various technological advances it did and didn’t predict. Produced by an HBO or an FX 15 years later, Max Headroom could’ve gotten at the grit and menace (and maybe some of the gore) that “Blipverts” can only hint at. Of course, if that were the case, it would’ve been placed on a shelf too high for younger viewers like myself to reach. Max Headroom made up my first brushes with dystopian fiction, and that was revelatory for someone raised on optimistic space operas like Star Wars and Star Trek. Through the show, I learned that sci-fi could be earthbound, and I learned that it could be kind of a bummer, too.

So did anyone catch Max Headroom during its initial run? If so, did it seem unlike anything else in primetime to you, too?

Phil Dyess-Nugent: I hate to be that guy, but… the original is better. I remember thinking that while watching the American network broadcast version of Max Headroom in my dorm room in 1987. By then, like most pop-culture addicts of a certain age and mindset, I had tracked down 20 Minutes Into The Future on videocassette and had watched the reruns of Max’s original British pop-clips-and-chat show on Cinemax. Then I followed his increasingly weird emergence as a soda-pop spokesperson and guest on other people’s talk shows, where a video monitor would be set up onstage so that he could shoot the shit with a confused-looking David Letterman. I honestly can’t remember at what point G.B. Trudeau introduced a Reaganized version of Max into Doonesbury, but it might have been after the ABC show. The original, 57-minute TV film has a giddy, heartless cyberpunk edge to it that was right at home on the famously adventurous, then-fledgling Channel 4, but wouldn’t entirely fly on ABC primetime, though it lives on in the best snippets of the American-cast version—such as the primitive-CGI film illustrating what happens when a blipvert blows up an overly tranquilized TV viewer—which were cannibalized for the remake that is the series pilot. (20 Minutes Into The Future was directed by a couple of music-video makers, Rocky Morton and Annabel Jankel, of whom great things were anticipated by some of us. They proceeded to go to Hollywood and instead made the Dennis Quaid version of D.O.A. and the Super Mario Bros. movie, which just goes to show how wrong it is to ever expect anything from anybody.) 

The ABC pilot is an awkward synthesis, taking some of the original’s glibness and trying to build a show around it that takes this stuff kind of seriously. As such, it’s very 1987—very proud of its subversive elements but much slicker and more polished than the medium-testing experiments of, say, Ernie Kovacs or early Saturday Night Live. It’s “ironic” in its take on TV in a way that’s smart but also a little self-protective. The big benchmark of pop culture in 1987 that it made me think of isn’t RoboCop but the night that Crispin Glover did his infamous freakout on the Letterman show and, in the process, demonstrated just what it took to get the patron of The World’s Most Dangerous Band to turn to the fourth wall and go, “I don’t need this.” 

Other observations: I had completely forgotten that Wynn Duffy and I went this far back. Hey, Rick Ducommun! That guy was everywhere from around 1985 through 1992, something for which I can offer no explanation. If you were born after the ’80s, I don’t know that I can communicate how strange it felt to see Charles Rocket in anything after his own famous flameout on SNL—kind of like seeing the Loch Ness Monster riding the Comet Kohoutek across the night sky. As when you see someone like Snooki or John McCain on TV in a straight acting role, you wondered what point he was trying to make. But he was a capable performer and in all likelihood a nice man who deserved a chance to keep his career going, and I feel bad about that now. R.I.P.

Ryan McGee: I absolutely remember watching this as an 11-year-old child and thinking, “This is the weirdest New Coke ad ever.” So I’m in the (almost certainly typical) demographic of already being familiar with the defanged version of this character before being dropped into the unholy stepchild of Blade Runner and Broadcast News. Not that I knew what either of those things were at the time, nor was I looking at TV with anything close to a critical eye. Erik, I think you and I had similar childhoods, in that television watching was a family ritual for us. We’d bond over Family Ties, My Two Dads, and a host of other shows. When my mom worked nights, my dad introduced my brother and me to Cheers, Taxi, M*A*S*H, and All In The Family via reruns during dinner. Those latter shows all are rife with deep insight into the human condition, but all I knew is that Latka made me laugh and I enjoyed it when Archie Bunker called his son-in-law Meathead.

All of this is a way of saying I’m thrilled you chose this episode as part of this latest leg of the Roundtable, because as awkward as the exposition can be, and as clunky as some of the action is, “Blipverts” still feels like something that had an accurate eye peered at today’s super-saturated landscape. We don’t have three-second commercials that pack in 30 seconds of content, but that’s primarily because the real world doesn’t have a super genius like the one played here by Chris Young to invent it. Instead, we’re encouraged to watch on multiple screens, tweet preordained hashtags that appear over 10 percent of the television, and get press releases touting L+7 ratings. Our eyeballs are tracked as closely as the ones on Max’s virtual head. 2014 doesn’t physically resemble the dystopias presented in works such as Max Headroom, but that lack of overt gloom doesn’t make the possibility of Network 23 any less real.

Above all else, what “Blipverts” locates is something that’s almost omnipresent in the types of genre shows I grew to love once I realized there were interesting things going on under the hood of the medium I once shared with my family as mindless activity. That something is the fact that corporations are the new nation-states when it comes to creating large antagonistic bodies in serialized narrative. Nationalistic ideology takes a back seat to good old-fashioned capitalism, and what makes that shift so powerful is everyone at home recognizing they are, to one extent or another, part of that ecosystem. It shifts blame to the point where we’re watching these shows from a comfortable distance, because we at home are either actively working to ensure the success of these companies or blind enablers purchasing the goods and services that keep these industries operating. Sure, The X-Files traversed in the world of government conspiracies, but that was more the exception than the rule. Starting with Max Headroom, you can trace a type of modern-day Biblical lineage: Network 23 begat the Widmore Corporation begat the Blue Sun Corporation begat Veridian Dynamics begat dozens of others. We enjoy watching this version of Max speak to the unwashed, unaware masses of this fictional universe because we suspect, on a fundamental level, that he might offer up some form of truth about the world in which we ourselves live. These types of conspiracies make the external internal, and make us question our own roles as conspirators.

Molly Eichel: Erik, you and I are about the same age, so I missed the original version of Max Headroom. But I sought it after reading about its prophetic qualities, which Ryan does an excellent job of getting into. Alas, after seeing the Americanized pilot, I gave up in favor of other television. But you boys’ descriptions and fondness for the show make me think I should keep going at some point. On my first go-round with the pilot, I was distracted by the decidedly low-budget bells and whistles; what fascinated me at first was how 1987 viewed this “20 minutes from now” future. But on the rematch, the show also struck me as this classic adventure yarn, in part because of Carter’s rosy portrayal as a swashbuckling journalist in the Woodward and Bernstein vein. He’s a lover and a fighter, but he also uncovers injustice, even at the expense of his own paycheck. 

With all of the prescient issues in Max Headroom, the idea of media conglomeration, as Ryan discusses, caught my eye. As a print journalist by day (yeah, yeah, yeah…), it’s an issue I face daily. Despite the ratings bump he’s getting, Edison Carter is initially silenced because he’s investigating a major advertiser, the Zik-Zak Corporation. It has to feel the same for any Washington Post journalist who wants to look into issues at Amazon.

I think it’s interesting we’re looking at Max Headroom around the release of certified Johnny Depp flop Transcendence, a movie I have no plans on seeing but can gather—from the copious advertising materials—that the uploading of Depp’s character’s consciousness is not a good thing for all of humankind. Other entertainment has explored this (hello, 2001: A Space Odyssey), but the character of Max Headroom seems to make up for these evil computers with a witty remark. Max Headroom is a friendlier view of this sort of technology, possibly because Edison Carter is still allowed his corporeal form: Max is a shadow of Carter, not Carter himself. Still, Max is infused with humanity. He may be a shadow, but that shadow is a crusader in the same vein as its source—albeit a slick, smartass one. In my view, the cynical spine of Max Headroom derives not from the technology at work, but from boardroom fat cats, like Rocket’s character, intent on using that technology for greedy purposes. Sure, technology may be making people fat and lazy (like the unfortunate blipvert victim), but that blame is shifted to corporate culture, rather than television itself, a comment on the American Psycho/Wall Street version of the ’80s. Erik, do you view technology’s role in the pilot the same way I do, or do you consider it more sinister?

EA: It’s funny to be conducting this conversation in the wake of Transcendence, which manages to find more alarmism in the path to dystopia than Max Headroom finds by depicting a technocracy in the present tense. To me, Molly, that’s the potency of the world established within “Blipverts”: As you observed, it’s not the technology that’s to be blamed but rather the way it’s being used. There’s a dehumanization at play, and not in the vein of Transcendence’s skeptical view of its own digitized, floating-head demigod. The suits at 23 don’t see their viewers as people—they see them as numbers. Blipverts don’t take lives—they take a chunk out of the Zik-Zak Corporation’s consumer base. (An aside: One of my favorite jokes of the whole pilot is how it’s never stated what the Zik-Zak Corporation manufactures, which only makes its omnipresence more terrifying.)

The idea, then, is to find humanity in this world of boobs and boob-tubes. It’s present in Edison’s sense of justice and Theora’s compassion, but the most human part of the Max Headroom landscape is Max himself. Unlike his coding, he’s imperfect and unpredictable; as Grossberg finds out when he presents Max to the network board, he can’t be controlled, either. Not that I would’ve picked up on that when I was an impressionable youngin’ in front of my own TV set—I just thought Max was funny, which is a human trait in its own way.

Is “Blipverts”’ implication that man and machine can coexist part of what you see as diluting the acrid humor of 20 Minutes Into The Future, Phil?

PDN: I wouldn’t say that. If any acid that was in the original got watered down, I see that more in things like the conception of Bryce, the teen computer wizard. In 20 Minutes Into The Future, he’s really creepy, a kind of avatar of a new, ruthless generation that can do anything with technology but has zero empathy or moral intelligence. He’s a shark-in-training who even gives the network suits a bit of a chill. Here, he’s just a little bit softer, more of a kid who hasn’t grown up enough to grasp the implications of what he’s doing. I think he came to sum up the inherent problems in building a series around Max, especially one for American network TV, because over the course of the series, you got the sense that the producers really weren’t sure what to do with him.

There’s a contradiction built into the character of Max himself that was right there from the start, in 20 Minutes. It’s announced in the moment when Blank Reg, the aged punk who first unleashes Max, sees him cracking wise on the air, gets excited, and says, “Go, Max, go!” It’s as if he thinks Max is an incredibly subversive on-air presence who’s ripping the lid off the corporate overlords. But what’s genuinely funny, and subversive, about Max, is that he’s designed to be pure TV, a completely shallow, self-serving presence that talks in garbled media clichés and isn’t interested in anything but being the center of attention. So the idea that he’s a subversive presence in the world of the show is kind of insane. (Given Morton and Jankel’s failure to prove themselves to be heavyweight ironists, I’m past the point of thinking this was deliberate.) When Max turns on the bosses, saying that you can tell a network executive is lying whenever his lips move, he’s like—him again—David Letterman giving his GE bosses shit during his NBC days. It’s the kind of superficially edgy humor that led to Letterman’s public breakup with Harvey Pekar, when Pekar went on the show and blasted Dave for not really getting into the ways General Electric abused its power. (Why Harvey Pekar thought that David Letterman should be doing Bill Moyers’ job is a question for another time.) Max was best when he was invading our world as a VJ on his old Channel 4 show, playing videos and yawning in the face of interview guests like Sting, and I would dearly love to be able to see that stuff again. Whatever the rights issues might be like, I suspect that Shout! Factory, the company that repackaged the ABC series for home video, thinks the music-video stuff would be too dated to be any fun. I think it might be the other way around.

RM: We’re discussing this show at a time in which net neutrality might be going the way of the dodo, which gives Max Headroom another boost of prescience and relevance. The Internet helped democratize and destabilize the type of top-down structures seen in “Blipverts,” and upcoming legislation suggests that the type of corporations that want a higher pay tier for certain applications might not be that different than those that want to compress a 30-second ad into three seconds. Whereas the suits at 23 can’t find a way to control Max, companies like Comcast might have found a way to control those binge watching Breaking Bad.

The crucial difference, of course, comes from the market share in both scenarios. Max Headroom posits a world in which everyone is forced to watch television, which in turn produces ratings that make those for The Big Bang Theory look like those for Hannibal. The idea of forced viewership turns culture into commodity, and the act of watching its own form of slavery. There aren’t more viewers to obtain in this fictional world, just a slightly bigger piece of an established pie. It makes programs as interchangeable as the parts distributed by the body banks. (I can’t believe we’ve barely talked about Jere Burns’ role here yet, with no mention of his insane hairdo.) Television shows are created through market research and dystopian sabermetrics. Max works for the reason all unique television shows work: People can smell bullshit a mile away, and instinctively respond to a unique voice. Maybe we no longer have the type of coherent audience seen in Max Headroom, but that unshared experience also leads to personal discoveries that people in this show couldn’t even imagine.

ME: I think we’d be remiss in discussing “Blipverts” if there was no mention of the so-called Max Headroom Incident (recently covered in Mike Vago’s Wiki Wormhole column). In 1987, a man wearing a Max Headroom mask broke into the broadcast feeds of Chicago stations WGN (showing a Bears highlight show) and WTTW (airing Doctor Who). In the latter intrusion, which lasted about 90 seconds, the man speaks in seeming non sequiturs before getting his ass spanked by someone in a French maid outfit. The hacker was never caught, becoming the D.B. Cooper of the television hijacking.

While Max may have used his airwaves to spread the truth about corporate greed, the Headroom hacker decided instead to hum the Clutch Cargo theme. The incident didn’t carry the same witty relevance as Edison Carter’s shadow personality. It was one of those moments Ryan mentions, an unshared experience, yet one still remembered today for its subversion. Even if WGN sportscaster Dan Roan said it best after the hacked feed ended, “Well, if you’re wondering what happened, so am I!”

Next time: Sonia Saraiya’s group explains it all about Clarissa Explains It All’s “No T.V.”

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