Directed by: Brian E. Frankish, Peter Wagg
Starring: Matt Frewer, Jeffrey Tambor, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Concetta Tomei
Max Headroom, the talking CGI avatar and star of a couple of television shows and movies in England and a series of “New” Coke commercials eventually made it to American shores in an innovative yet short lived sci-fi series for ABC called Max Headroom. The question is does the show still seem innovative?
This series only ran for 13 episodes (14 were shot) perhaps because it was so far ahead of its time and it was way to quirky for mainstream TV. The show was set “20 minutes in the future” where the world has changed for the worse. The new dystopian society is ruled by television. There are television sets literally everywhere. Even the homeless have access to TV. The obsession with the boob tube is so extreme that if a popular show is preempted riots occurred. Instead of soup kitchens offering up blankets and food they offer up opportunities for the poor to see television.
One of the most popular shows on television is a news show hosted by Edison Carter. Carter not only reports the news but he also shoots the show with his own camera. The camera also acts as a communications device with his home base where his producer and his controller. The original name for the U.K. show and movie came from signs that read “Max Headroom” on parking garages. The American show winks at the origins of the name and sets up the rest of the series by slamming Edison’s head into one of those signs. Just before Edison dies due to complications of a coma Edison’s brain pattern is scanned into the mainframe computer at the TV station where he worked. Edison’s brain patterns are ran through a program that creates a simulated version of Edison that names itself after the first image it remembers; “Max Headroom”.
Edison actually recovers from the coma only to find that his digital self has integrated itself so deeply into the TV networks computers that there was no getting rid of him. In fact the network even grants Max his own show in order to keep him from interrupting other shows and causing social unrest. From this point on Edison investigates stories with Max offering help as only he can. He can see when people are watching him and he can broadcast himself into virtually any television in the city.
The show had a very low budget even for the era in which it was made so effects and sets don’t hold up well but the world the creators were building outshined the budgetary limits. There’s more social and politicol commentary running through an episode of this series than a George Romero zombie flick. Max Headroom is a TV show inside a TV show but it always managed to spit in the face of its creators usually making advertisers or television executives the villains. Their goals were to feed the masses lowest common denominator programs to keep them under control and in some cases keep them dumb so they can always have cheap labor. While the show looks dated the concepts and thematic elements are surprisingly current and effective. The biggest problem with the show is that Max himself ends up feeling like a gimmick a lot of the time. He’s generally charismatic and funny if a little juvenile character but he never quite gets grounded into the series in a meaningful way. That may be because the show was cancelled too soon though. Complaints aside, this onestill has a lot to say about modern media and its effect on the world in which we live.
The full screen video here unfortunately hasn’t been restored just presented as is. The image is soft, riddled with specks, and low in detail. The video is poor but still watchable. Watching it makes it feel as old as it is.
The Dolby Digital Stereo presentation is extremely basic and overall a little soft but it gets the job done. There’s no major problems with distortion or other artifacts.
The Packaging and Bonus Features
The box set comes packaged with a holo-foil cover featuring Max’s head. The artwork is appropriate and eye catching.
There’s some surprisingly good stuff in the bonus features department. Live on Network 23: The story of Max Headroom is an hour long documentary covering the creation of the character and the show featuring interviews with the writers and producers. Learning the differences in crafting a project for TV in the U.K. versus here is fascinating. There’s even a pitch for a 2011 reboot of the show in this documentary.
Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middlemen and a writer for Lost moderates a half hour long roundtable discussion with stars Jeffrey Tambor, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, and Concetta Tomei. There’s a little back slapping happening in the roundtable discussion but otherwise there’s some interesting stories from the production and after that make it worth a look. Not having Matt Frewer involved is a real loss.
There are a few other short featurettes including a brief discussion of what it took to create the world of Max Headroom, reminiscence with the writers, and a short look at the show from a real science point of view. There are some things missing that would have really made this release special; most importantly some involvement from Matt Frewer, commentaries, some of Max’s promos and ads, and the original U.K. movies and shows would have been fantastic. Still, compared to most classic television series box sets the features that are here are outstanding.
Max Headroom looks its age with cheap effects and sets but the storytelling is quite unique and could be retold today. This set would have ranked higher overall had the audio and video been given a proper restoration..
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10
The Show 8/10
The Video 5/10
The Audio 5/10
The Packaging and Bonus Features 7/10
Overall (Not an Average) 7/10