“Say, would someone mind checking the ratings? I seem to have an audience of two.”
I don’t know that anyone consciously sets out with a plan to develop a character intended to introduce music videos who ends up getting a dystopian origin story before going on to become a talk show host, Coca-Cola pitch man, and star of a short-lived television series on a whole other continent from the one where he was born and then laying a legitimate claim to being an icon of 1980s pop culture and even somewhat better than average prognosticator.
I think we all have to agree there’s really no formula for that kind of thing. Shit just has to happen in a certain unpredictable order resulting in a perfect storm, and boom. There you are.
Max Headroom? Looking at you.
For those of you who’ve somehow managed to get to the year 2020 without coming across this guy, I applaud you on your ability to remain focused on things that actually matter. At the same time, I can’t help giving you a little side-eye, because come on! It’s Max Headroom, for crying out loud.
Okay, fine. You’re just in time, because as it happens, Max turns 35 today.
Conceived by creators George Stone, Rocky Morton, and Annabel Jankel as a means to introduce music videos for Channel 4, the still fairly young London-based broadcast television station, Max was meant to mix up the format solidified by MTV. That’s right, kids! There was a time when the “M” meant “music” and the bulk of MTV’s program was….wait for it…music videos. Music. For your TV. Mind. Blown. Hell, by 1985 it was already old hat, so Stone, Morton, and Jankel were enlisted to come up with something new and fresh.
In the midst of this development, Stone, Morton, and Jankel decided that simply linking music videos with a series of graphics or other silliness just wasn’t interesting. They landed on the idea of a character who would be “computer generated.” Morton then started coming up with bits and pieces of how the character came to be and that he was actually based on a real person. Their original plan was to roll out the origin story in a series of five-minute chunks, but when they pitched their idea to Channel 4, the execs there liked it enough they pushed for an actual film with all of this baked in. The trio set to work expanding their ideas into a longer story. What did they end up with? I’m glad you asked.
It was on April 4th, 1985, that Channel 4 aired Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future. A darkly satirical look behind the curtain of media and entertainment empires and unchecked corporate gluttony. Long before the 24-hour news cycle and in-your-face ad-based media became our everyday normal, Max Headroom was already mocking such things.
Set in the near future–you guessed it, “20 minutes”–the film introduces us to Edison Carter as portrayed by actor Matt Frewer, a field reporter for “Network 23” who tracks down all manner of crazy stories for his own sort of low-rent blend of investigative journalism and sensationalism already being made infamous by tabloid TV evocateurs such as Morton Downey Jr, Phil Donahue, and Geraldo Rivera (this was before Rivera’s infamous TV special with Al Capone’s vaults, but the signs were there, people).
Carter stumbles upon the truth behind “blipverts,” a form of hyperaccelerated, subliminal advertising that’s actually screwing with the neurons of people who spend too much time couch surfing in front of the TV and eating shitty food. He discovers the execs at his own network are behind the blipverts and don’t care who they’re killing just so long as the ratings remain awesome.
With the help of his trusted network “controller,” Theora Jones (played by Amanda Pays), Carter sneaks into 23’s headquarters in search of evidence to solidify his story. Their covert shenanigans draw the wrong kind of attention in the form of Bryce Lynch, a snotty teenaged hacker employed by the network, and Carter’s forced to bail. He almost makes his escape on a motorcycle through the building’s parking garage only to be thwarted by Lynch, who drops a low-clearance warning barrier into his path. What’s painted on the barrier?
Carter gets a nasty head wound for his trouble. Ow. Network execs, pissing themselves at the thought of losing one of their highest rated reporters, order Lynch to download the contents of Carter’s into a computer so that an artificial version of him can be broadcast with the public being none the wiser. Sounds easy, right? Of course not. Lynch’s attempt to create an artificial intelligence results in a flickering, glitchy avatar of Carter who keeps stuttering over the same phrase: “Max headroom.” Lynch orders the disposal of both Carter and the AI.
Managing to avoid having his organs harvested at a “body bank,” Carter makes it back to Theora at Network 23, where they work to expose the execs and the truth about blipverts. Meanwhile, Reg, the owner of a pirate TV station powered out of his RV, acquires the Carter AI software from some of Lynch’s hired goons and gets it working well enough to broadcast, and “Max Headroom,” TV host, is born.
20 Minutes Into the Future led into The Max Headroom Show, which premiered on Channel 4 two nights later. It’s here that viewers got to see Max as he was originally intended, with Matt Frewer subjecting himself to the arduous makeup and lighting process to make Max appear “computer generated” as he intro’d and interrupted music videos to toss out snarky jokes and one-liners. In fact, the truth behind the effect was a closely-guarded secret, with few knowing that computers really had little to nothing to do with generating Max. For the last episode of the show’s first series, the idea of interviewing a guest was introduced and that altered the format for the remainder of the show’s run.
With Max’s popularity booming, the character was brought in to help Coca-Cola with what remains one of its biggest missteps: New Coke. The change in the venerable beverage’s formula was not going over well with consumers, and it was hoped Max Headroom might turn the tide. Despite well-received commercials and print advertising on everything from billboards to posters to bumper stickers, New Coke died a well-deserved death.
Meanwhile, Max was still riding high and Peter Wagg, producer at Chrysalis Records and the largely silent “4th man” behind the character’s creation, found another realm for Max to conquer: American television. ABC launched Max Headroom in March of 1987 with a six-episode first season. Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays reprised their roles from the original film along W. Morgan Sheppard returning as Reg. Incredibly, the original trio responsible for Max’s creation–George Stone, Rocky Morton, and Annabel Jankel–received any sort of credit on the ABC series and neither were they even invited to participate, even though the series’ first episode, “Blipverts,” retells most of 20 Minutes Into the Future‘s story. The episode alters the original ending so that Bryce Lynch and Network 23 can continue to be antagonists.
That same summer, Cinemax launched a 6-part series, The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, which was yet another version of the original Channel 4 series featuring interviews with the likes of William Shatner, Mary Tyler Moore, and Penn and Teller. As with everything else that came after the original movie, both shows blunt a good bit of the edgy satire 20 Minutes introduced. Max Headroom‘s first season did well enough that the show returned for for the fall 1987 season, but its ratings fell and it was cancelled with no small amount of irony.
Despite this setback, there was no denying Max Headroom had cemented himself as one of the 1980s’ most unforgettable pop culture heavyweights, outclassing everyone and everything from Madonna to the Terminator to the California Raisins and even that damned Noid from Domino’s Pizza. Let’s face it: when you’ve got your own self-help book, you know you’ve arrived, amirite? As the 80s gave way to the 90s and the 2000s, Max still had some street cred thanks in large part to the proliferation of the internet and our increasingly connected “online” lives, to say nothing of the plain and simple nostalgia on the part of people who fondly remember that era (example: the guy who wrote the blog post you’re reading right now).
I had the pleasure of meeting Matt Frewer at a convention about six or seven years ago, and of course I chose a Max headshot for autographing. He talked fondly about the show and working with the cast and crew, and less so about the grueling Max makeup. He offered the idea that any reboot of the character would almost certainly be computer generated and indeed smiled at the notion of revisiting Max in some way, circumstances permitting. This was before the film Pixels, which includes a brief cameo of Max and is voiced by Frewer.
While his pop-up appearance in Pixels is little more than a tease, what would a modern take on Max Headroom be like? When the character was conceived, what we now know as the internet was in its infancy; the constant lure and pull of the World Wide Web was almost a decade away. Still, the world Max inhabited with the original 20 Minutes Into the Future and the ABC series predicted things like reality TV, ratings-based news programs, and even YouTube and other “alternative media” outlets. It seems like a no-brainer that a modern Max would roam the intrawebz with abandon while causing all manner of mischief.
I can totally see him party crashing the talking head shows on Fox News or interrupting one of the president’s
pep rallies “press conferences,” or sneaking in to screw up the vote on any episode of Survivor, The Bachelor, The Voice, or Big Brother. Don’t think regular people would be immune, either because he could show up any time you tried buying something from an online retailer, downloading an app to your phone, streaming a movie, or sneaking a quick peek at PornHub.
Holy shit. Max Headroom introducing porn clips. Let that image fester for a moment.
I have no doubt Max will return in some form, one of these days. I’m honestly surprised it hasn’t yet happened in some substantial way. Hell, I joked a while back about the awesome crossover story I wanted to write where Max Headroom ends up in the world of Tron. I have an idea sketched out, which was the result of one of those nights I was watching TV and scribbling while battling insomnia. It just popped into my head and wouldn’t go away until I wrote something in a file that’s now hiding somewhere on my laptop. It’ll likely never see the light of day, but at least now I’ve got you frightened, right?
Until that nightmare comes to pass, I guess we’ll just have to keep our eyes peeled and be on the lookout for Max Headroom’s inevitable comeback.
“Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV? Don’t know the answer? Hmm… successful, isn’t it?“