Saturday, March 26, 2011

Max Headroom (TV)

Cast of Max HeadroomCreated by
Annabel Jankel, Rocky Morton, and George Stone
Starring Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, Chris Young, Jeffrey Tambor, George Coe, William Morgan Sheppard
IMDB Entry

TV programmers seem to think that Friday night is where you schedule science fiction shows.  This probably comes from The Twilight Zone, which was a notable success, and aired on Fridays. For this reason, the list of TV SF shows that have been aired on Friday is frighteningly long.  It's not by coincidence that SyFy has always run its original series on that night, and shows like The Wild, Wild West; Time Tunnel; The Six Million Dollar Man; Kolchak: The Night Stalker; Firefly; The X-Files; and Dollhouse were aired on that night.

Sometimes, though, an SF show manages to become a success on another night.   Max Headroom was one of these, and a phenomenon.

The series was developed in the UK as a TV movie. It was then developed for the US market, with some actors added and dropped, and showed up on TV in March of 1987.

Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) is a crusading reporter for Network 23.  When he gets too close to a dangerous story, he runs and crashes his car into a barrier.  Carter falls into a coma.

Max HeadroomBut this is 20 minutes in the future.  Computer whiz kid Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) uploads Carter's personality into a computer, creating a virtual version of him.  But the system is still experimental and the new personality takes on the name of Max Headroom (Frewer).*  Max stuttered, wisecracked and faded in and out as he commented and occasionally took action.

But Carter survived.  Thus, aided (and hindered) by Max, he went to uncover corruption in the government and TV networks.**  He was assisted by Theora Jones was Edison's "controller" (sort of like a director) while Murry, his producer (Jeffrey Tambor) fretted.  Network president Ben Cheviot (George Coe) still had enough ideals to support Carter's crusades even when the ratings (gathered continuously) dropped.  Edison was helped by Blank Reg (William Morgan Shepard), who lived off the grid.

The show was a somewhat dark look at the future where corporations ruled and personal freedom and privacy was at risk.  Carter and Theora would race to unmask the plans before it became too late.  The show owed a lot to the cyberpunk movement in science fiction.

But it was Max who stole the show. He was primarily a form of comic relief, but his weird, stuttering style and strange voice effects.  He quickly appeared on the cover of Newsweek.  The show became a minor phenomenon, even winning a few technical Emmies.

Then ABC made their programming decision for the next season.  The show was doing fine on Tuesdays, but -- since SF had to be on Fridays -- they moved it.  Opposite Dallas.  And Miami Vice.  These ratings juggernauts killed the show.***

MAD about MaxMax continued on.  He became (ironically, given his origin) a spokesman for Coca Cola.  Later, Cinemax used him as a host of The Original Max Talking Headroom Show, an interview show.  For a few years, Max Headroom himself became an integral part of popular culture.

But, alas the show did not.  Maybe it was too weird; maybe too close to reality.  But clearly it would have lasted a lot longer if ABC hadn't tampered with the time slot.

*A joke that didn't really translate to the US.  In the UK, the "Max. Headroom 2.3m" sign he hit was the equivalent of an American "Clearance 7 1/2 ft." in a parking garage.  Max was not actually computer generated; Frewer dressed in a latex prosthetic and played the role.

**There was a lot of overlap.

***Max's final words before cancellation were "We will fight them on the streets of Dallas... We will fight them on the streets of Miami... Vice... and if the ratings book lasts for a thousand years, they will say this is Max Headroom's finest hour."


Mujeres Culonas said...

Loved me some Max Headroom !

Kim Kinnison said...

If I remember correctly, the US version of the pilot episode was almost an exact scene-for-scene copy of the original UK version. The music in the UK version was done by Midge Ure and Chris Cross, both of Ultravox fame. Midge Ure was also a co-founder of Band Aid. Amanda Pays (I had a massive crush on her!) who played Edison Carter's editor/sidekick annoyingly married Corbin Bernsen of L.A. Law fame! PAH! (Not that I'm jealous! Much!)

Anonymous said...

I've been re-watching it lately and sad to say it doesn't live up to my memories. Really dark and muddy lighting. I'm sure they were going for the noir look but it looks a bit cheap. Also some of the stories are great ideas that looked like they could have used a bit more production time to really pull off.

Last thing I'd like to say is the surprising thing that the old style monitors didn't bother me as I expected they would. The really old keyboards they used set the stage fora mish-mash tech/kitch feel that really works to this day.