Saturday, April 2, 2011

Max Headroom

The Dude

The link

When Max Headroom first hit the media landscape in 1985, it was with a two-pronged assault: a music-video series in which the "computer-generated" titular character introduced and often ridiculed the hot acts of the day, and a live-action sci-fi movie explaining the "origin" of Max Headroom.

That movie, like the subsequent 1987 live-action ABC drama series also called Max Headroom, was set "20 minutes into the future." Now, a full 25 years after he first appeared on England's Channel 4, Max Headroom finally shows up on home video...

The August 10 release, from Shout! Video in collaboration with Warner Bros. Entertainment, is a five-DVD set called Max Headroom: The Complete Series. On four discs, it presents the American version of the Max Headroom pilot, and all subsequent 13 episodes produced for ABC in 1987-88 -- including one episode, "Baby Grobags," not televised for another seven years.

The fifth disc is full of DVD extras, including a reunion with most of the show's cast, including Jeffrey Tambor, who co-starred here long before becoming a cult TV star thanks to HBO's The Larry Sanders Show and Fox's Arrested Development. (Missing from the reunion, sadly, is series star Matt Frewer, who played both Edison Carter and Max Headroom.)

For genre fans, it's a must-buy DVD purchase, and you can -- and should -- order it HERE.

The ABC series really was decades ahead of its time, and tackled lots of questions about what TV was doing to viewers, and what greedy TV executives were doing to their own medium. A subplot in the TV movie that launched the series, for example, concerned "blipverts," the devious brainchild of executives at the globally dominant Network 23. "Blipverts" were subliminal commercials, run so quickly that no viewer could fast-forward through them. Another plot had a rival pay-per-view TV operation downloading people's dreams, and selling them as prurient entertainment.

The cleverness of Max Headroom is reflected best in the origin story of the title character. Edison Carter, played by Frewer, is the star reporter at Network 23. While investigating a story, he's chased by some bad guys, and tries to escape by hopping on a motorcycle and exiting an underground parking garage.

But he ends up going airborne, and crashing headfirst into an exit-gate barrier, on which is printed the warning, "MAX. HEADROOM 2.3 METERS."

When a computer genius back at Network 23 downloads Edison's brain into a computer program, what's left of the reporter's consciousness is represented by his disembodied face -- displayed by computer in a plastic, stuttering form. But Edison's memories are intact, including the last thing he saw, which becomes his computerized alter ego's name: Max Headroom.

Utterly brilliant. Especially since, as one of the show's creators explains on the disc of extras, every car park in England at the time was emblazoned with the identical "MAX HEADROOM" warning. Free, instant advertising, all over the nation. (It's a wonder no American series has ever claimed the title STOP, or YIELD, or WATCH FOR FALLING ROCK.)

I loved Max Headroom decades ago, reviewed it positively, and have taught it in my Rowan University TV History and Appreciation II class, quite recently, to the amusement and amazement of my students. Therefore, my only complaint about this first-ever DVD release is that it's not as complete an experience, or a history, as it could have been.

Yes, it's titled Max Headroom: The Complete Series, but that refers only to the ABC series, the live-action drama starring Frewer, Tambor, Amanda Pays, Morgan Sheppard, Concetta Tomei, Chris Young, Jere Burns and others.

Missing from this set is the rest of the Max Headroom experience. Like what? Like this: His popular stint as a music-video host, which included Max interviewing such popular (and impressively game) stars as Sting. The original British Max Headroom telemovie, which was slightly re-edited, with a few supporting cast changes, into the ABC pilot. (These two showed up, eventually, on HBO and its sister network, Cinemax.) And even a few of his Coke commercials, which is where many people may have encountered him first.

The absence of these extra elements keeps this DVD Max Headroom set from being entirely complete -- but doesn't stop it from being impressive. So buy it, and enjoy it. As Max might say, it's f-f-fantastic.

(After about 5 p.m. Tuesday, you should be able to hear my review of the Max Headroom DVD set on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross by clicking HERE. Or Wednesday for sure.)

[UPDATE: Here's a bonus, if I've worked this right. I found, on YouTube, Max Headroom's 1985 interview with Sting, which is every bit as twisted and entertaining as I remembered. The clip is, I hope, embedded below. -- David B.]

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