Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, Lee Wilkof, William Morgan Sheppard, Virginia Kiser, Concetta Tomei
The Complete Series
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Reviewed by Will Harris
t the beginning of each episode of ABC’s “Max Headroom,” viewers were always reminded that the science fiction series took place 20 minutes in the future. It was a joke, of course, but it was also intended to serve as a reminder that the goings-on within the show weren’t nearly as far away as we’d probably like to believe that they were. Watching the show now, you’d think that Nostradamus had been one of the staff writers: far too many of the ideas and events which took place in the show have since come to pass within the television industry.
As you read this, you may be thinking, “What the hell is this guy talking about? I thought Max Headroom was just a talking head who served as a shill for New Coke!” Others, meanwhile, may recall the ostensibly computer-generated character as a talk show host. Both of these recollections are true, but for TV critics, Max’s greatest impact was definitely his 14-episode series on ABC, which was far more drama than comedy, positing a world where television is as much of a ruling power as the government.
Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), the star investigative news reporter for Network 23, had been on a story when he was seriously injured, but the contents of his mind were uploaded into a computer, creating a sentient computer program which called itself Max Headroom after the last thing Edison saw before being knocked unconscious: a “Maximum Head Room” sign. Thankfully, Edison recovers and returns to his job, but now he’s got an electronic co-worker who possesses all of his memories, but without any filter to keep from saying anything that might offend or insult others; between the two of them, they try to bring as much truth and justice to the world as the television networks will allow. Therein lies part of the problem, however, and we bear witness to the executives of the network – led by Ben Cheviot – as they’re forced to decide which is more important: the disparagement of television or the big ratings that result from said disparagement.
As noted, some of the plotlines during the course of the series are disturbingly similar to what we’ve seen occur in the 20-plus years since the show originally aired, but not all of them related to television. “Security Systems” revolves around Edison finding his information deleted from governmental databases, “Baby Grobags” focuses on in vitro babies and how parents are able to pick and choose specifics about the kind of children they have, and “The Blanks” involves a damaging computer virus. On the actual TV front, though, “Grossberg’s Return” is about using the medium of television to win an election, “Lessons” focus on TV censors, “Neurostim” deals with products inspiring you to go out and buy more products, and you’ll suspect that “Whacketts” might now be a true story, since it suggests that the reason viewers are watching an incredibly stupid show is because there’s a sonic signal within the program which makes them unable to resist it. There’s also Big Time TV, an anarchic network which competes with Network 23, despite having a far less powerful signal. (Fox, anyone?)
The cast of “Max Headroom” is also extremely interesting, with a decidedly pre-“Arrested Development” Jeffrey Tambor as Edison’s newsroom boss, Amanda Pays as his sexy British co-worker, and former “SNL” cast member Charles Rocket as Ned Grossberg, the super-slimy villain of the series. The character of Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) is also key to the series: a teen computer prodigy who regularly provides a look into what the future generation has the potential to accomplish and how frightening the possibilities may be – something any parent can relate to.
If you’re a sci-fi fan who never realized that there was anything more to “Max Headroom” than a talking head who wasn’t nearly as funny as he seemed to think he was, you should definitely find the time to check out this 14-episode series. It’ll be a real revelation.
Special Features: No surprise here: Shout Factory has gone all out with the featurettes, providing us six different looks into the history of the show, the lengthiest and most in-depth of which is “Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom,” featuring interviews with the show’s creators, producers and writers. The loosest and, arguably, most enjoyable of the bunch is “Looking Back at the Future,” a roundtable with Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei, and Chris Young, moderated by Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of “The Middleman,” but also highly enjoyable is “The Big-Time Blanks,” a mutual admiration society where Tomei reminisces with co-star Morgan Sheppard. Other featurettes include “The Science Behind the Fiction,” “Producing Dystopia,” about creating the sets for the show, and “The Writers Remember.”
You’ll probably note one name missing amongst the cast, however: Matt Frewer. I don’t blame the guy for not wanting to remind people that he used to be Max Headroom, given how long it’s taken him to even semi-escape from the character, but it’s still really disappointing that he couldn’t bring himself to revisit his past and contribute to the set. It’s all great stuff here, but it still feels lacking without the insights of the man who played Max.