Cyberpunk Week: Max Headroom

The America of the future... where TV is a right,
but housing is a privilege.
While it may have faded from our pop-cultural consciousness into little more than a strange, half-remembered curiosity of the mid-1980s, the short-lived TV series Max Headroom holds up incredibly well as not only one of the better pieces of American cyberpunk media, but one of the most prescient and ahead-of-its time. Before the titular character told viewers to “c-c-c-catch the wave” of New Coke in a disastrously ill-advised marketing campaign, the show which spawned him was one of the first mainstream pieces of pop-culture to ride the wave of the sci-fi movement started by the cult popularity of Blade Runner and William Gibson's Neuromancer. Despite being forever tied in the minds of many to a massive commercial ad campaign, Max Headroom is a remarkably subversive series, and an extremely clever postmodern one. If ever there was a 1980s TV show in dire need of rediscovery and reappraisal, this is it. Max Headroom is the TV show that 2017 needs: a prime slice of '80s sci-fi which cuts its neon-and-synth nostalgia with remarkably relevant social commentary about the toxicity of constant media exposure, reality TV, fake-news, and social media nearly 30 years before any of those were things that existed. This is one of those social commentaries that may have seemed like over-the-top satire in its day, but has aged into an almost ridiculously spot-on critique of our troubled current media landscape.

The dystopian future of Max Headroom is one in which TV networks and fast-food chains have partnered to own literally everything, including the government, whose elections are staged based on ratings. Ratings wars have enough sabotage and murder that they are almost actual wars, it is illegal to turn off your TV, reality television is the only television, and all humans are required to register their data into a massive social network that keeps track of everyone at all times. Corporate profiteers are living large in skyscrapers and the poor starve in the slums, while piles of TVs continue to feed them a constant flow of media. Disconnecting from the social network has become an underground resistance of people who call themselves Blanks. In the midst of this reality, at the massively popular Network 23, one of the last teams of honest reporters – Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), Theora (Amanda Pays), and Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) – try to subvert the techno-fascism raging around them by actually bringing their viewers the truth. But to do so is a dangerous struggle, against both Network 23 management and the power-mad external forces of this dystopian world; a struggle which almost kills Edison, and leads to the creation of his ghost-in-the-machine, psychic-imprint-as-self-aware-computer-program doppelganger, Max Headroom. Matt Frewer is excellent in a double-role as the intrepid, dryly witty Edison and the snarky, scenery-chewing, over-the-top Max. The whole ensemble is pretty strong – Jeffrey Tambor is, not surprisingly, particularly good – but this is Frewer's show, and his career-making performance perfectly balances the writing's combination of serious sci-fi and wild satire. Over two half-seasons (it was a mid-season replacement its first year, and got canceled in the middle of its second) Edison, Max, and their allies navigate the odd corners of this William-Gibson-meets-Terry-Gilliam dystopia, in a series of episodes which offer biting satire of mass media and increasingly tech-dependent human existence.

Co-starring Jeffrey Tambor as Dr. Phil

Examining the show in 2017, the dystopia described above should have some very familiar-sounding elements: pervasive reality TV, media overrunning government and turning it into a farce that is dangerous for democracy, unplugging from media feeling like a revolutionary act. All of these things were satirical exaggerations of things already starting to happen in the 1980s media landscape, but it is almost eerie how much more accurate the social commentary feels today. Even specific episode plots feel creepily plausible in 2017. The pilot episode sees the network go to the logical conclusion of the constant desire to cram more ads into less time by creating subliminal-message advertizing; the downside of which is that the “blipverts” make some viewers' heads explode (though not a statistically high enough number for them to want to pull the ads). Another episode sees a buffoonish corporate figurehead run for political office on a platform of fear of the Other (in this case, Blanks), and carefully tool his incendiary messaging based on ratings figures. One might expect an '80s TV show about media to be dated 30 years later, but most of it still really works; the team behind the show had their finger on the cultural pulse even more than they likely knew.

The future - where all the walls have
atmospheric blue backlights.
Of course, while the show's social commentary is as relevant as ever in 2017, its actual technology – and the specifics of the plot – are often very much of the 1980s, in a way that on the one hand definitely dates the show, but on the other hand adds a lot to its nostalgic charm. While it predicted concepts of how technology would encompass human life in reasonably accurate ways, the actual ways in which the technology does what it does are sometimes hilariously off-base (check out how hacking works in the first episode – The Net looks not-that-ridiculous by comparison). There is undeniably a certain amount of vintage cheesiness to be found throughout. And naturally, the show's imagined future is still full of hard-wired analog technology, and VHS is still king. On both counts, though, what it doesn't get right about future technology adds to its charm by creating a vibe of distinctly-80s retro kitsch. Like all the best '80s versions of imagined futures, journeying into this weird temporal netherworld (in the words of Mike the one-armed man from Twin Peaks, “is it future, or is it past?”) is an endearingly nostalgic experience which is a huge part of the appeal. Plus, these anachronisms and misunderstandings of then-developing technology like the internet exist in an already deliberately anachronistic cyberpunk world. As is often the case in cyberpunk, the art design of Max Headroom draws heavily from technology that was already vintage and out-of-time in 1987: phones are often rotary, computers are often controlled by typewriter, and all the cars are Studebakers. This makes its setting genuinely timeless: a mishmash of the '50s, the '80s, and the future in which CRT TVs will always look right at home. And unlike Blade Runner, which is unfortunately set just two years from now, Max Headroom knows better than to tie itself to a specific future date: indeed, the show's snarky setting, as given in an on-screen title at the start of each episode, is “20 minutes into the future.”

In addition to its memorable use of anachronisms, the art and sound design of Max Headroom present cyberpunk at its best. Its dystopian cityscapes are moody film-noir-style worlds full of deep blue light contrasted by bright neon, and its interiors contain messes of technology that look as though Terry Gilliam visualized scenes from Neuromancer. Its soundtrack consists of alternately droning or rock-infused synth tracks that sound inspired by early Gary Numan. In general this show looks and sounds really good for television of its day: its highly artificial and stylized look is very cinematic, and can't have been cheap. It totally nails the cyberpunk look on the small-screen nearly as definitively as Blade Runner nailed it on the big-screen.

Can't you just hear the Vangelis playing
when you look at this skyline?
That high-budget look is one of several reasons why it is, in a way, shocking that this show was made at all. ABC really took a gamble on it, artistically as well as financially: its particular satirical blend of sci-fi is pretty niche, its direct pop-cultural antecedents – Blade Runner and Neuromancer – were sleeper hits that built up steam and became classics, and not immediate blockbusters, and the whole show is way more bizarre than just about any other major-network series short of Twin Peaks. But most of all, it's hard to believe that ABC greenlit a show with such a subversive view of media. This is a series that finds its dystopian future in the increasingly inescapable expansion of media empires, and TV network executives are quite literally its world-devouring villains. The series seems to have barely-concealed contempt for its own corporate overlords, and it bit the hand the fed it almost constantly. In the end, this is probably what killed the show: it wasn't canceled because it wasn't doing well, so much as it was murdered. It endured the same fate suffered by Firefly a decade and a half later: it was doing respectably though not spectacularly, but there were those in network management who wanted it dead, and they continually shuffled its time slot and pulled its advertising, making it very hard for fans to keep watching, until they had created a situation in which they could cancel it ostensibly for poor ratings. It's pretty clear what actually happened, though: it was just too weird and subversive to exist in the network era.

All of this sounds like a perfect recipe for a beloved cult classic, yet somehow the series itself has more or less been forgotten, with only the ephemeral image of the Max Headroom character remaining clearly in our consciousness. If this is the time when Max Headroom should be enjoying a cult comeback, why hasn't it yet? The answer likely lies in how the decades after its release were rather cruel to the show: it never got a home video release in America for the first more-than-20-years of its life, and after the Sci-Fi Channel (before it was SyFy) and Tech TV stopped rerunning it in the early-2000s it became completely unavailable for the better part of a decade. This was when it largely slipped through the cracks of our collective memory. Shout! Factory finally gave it a complete-series DVD release in 2010, but that was a few years before '80s nostalgia was really in full-swing; if they released a new special edition box set today its popularity would surely skyrocket, but seven years ago it came out on disc without anyone besides hardcore sci-fi fans really noticing. Still, as some already fear that we are moving into a techno-dystopia of our own, this is the perfect time to rediscover this overlooked gem to the genre's past. While it delivers plenty of '80s nostalgia and kitsch, Max Headroom is so much more. It may not often get mentioned in the same breath as Blade Runner and Neuromancer, but this series stands as one of the better pieces of cyberpunk fiction that followed the success of those two genre-starters, not to mention one of the few that seriously crossed over into the mainstream. In fact William Gibson was signed on to write a script for the show's second season before it ultimately got canceled; if any proof is needed of the series' cyberpunk cred, surely that is it. C-c-c-catch the wave, and pick up Shout! Factory's DVD set. I'm just as excited for the new Blade Runner as anyone else, but a big part of me thinks that what we really need this year is a revival of Max Headroom.


- Christopher S. Jordan

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