RETROSPECULATIVE TV: Max Headroom: "Blipverts"

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"Max Headroom" is an odd beast: An American series based on a British TV film whose main character first became familiar to American viewers through a series of advertisements. Furthermore, it's a TV series about a TV reporter which openly criticizes and ridicules TV networks and the way "news" is made. It doesn't get much more meta than this.

It's easy to ridicule Max Headroom as a camp curio of 80's TV, given its lineage and the shoulder pads. These reviews won't go that route. Parts of this show already looked retro the day they first aired.

Seen today, Max Headroom seems both dated and prescient. Some of the writer's visions still seem possible, some have already come true and others stand out as painfully unfeasible. The show uses scifi trappings to try and give some insight in how journalists and TV networks work. Some revelations are painful clichés, other observations ring painfully true.

If you ever wondered what makes investigative reporters seek out danger instead of following the natural impulse of staying the heck away, Max Headroom might give you an idea. If you've never before realized that programming is what networks develop to be able to sell advertisements... boy, this 1987 show will pry your eyes open with a crowbar.

A note of warning: In order to properly convey the tone of the show, the following review goes into a lot of detail. Further reviews will contain shorter plot summaries instead of a play-by-play.

Max Headroom Episode 1: Blipverts

The US series pilot of Max Headroom begins with one of the worst opening credits sequences ever. Yes, even worse than the faux feel-good credits of "Star Trek: Enterprise."

The titular character appears for only an instant; the first proper close-up is an old punk lady licking her finger. The music keeps switching between agitated synth arpeggios and sustained guitar chords. Much like the episode itself, the credits sequence arrives in fits.

20 Minutes Into The Future

It's not as if the editor wasn't trying to make things interesting. You get action sequences, wireframe computer graphics, close-ups on the main characters and brief glimpses at what the future looked like in 1987. But every single scene you see here will later reappear in the episode -- yes, even the punk lady. It seems the poor editor was given nothing else to work with. Auspicious beginnings indeed.

The credits are followed by a three-second, lightning-fast montage promoting something called "Zik Zak", its slogan "Know Future". It's never mentioned what product is being advertised, the ad just hammers the brand into your brain at 88 mph.

Digression One: When you get a chance, watch a few TV ads in a foreign language and try to make out what's being advertised. If you don't recognize the brand or cheat by reading the YouTube description, you're probably going to be quite lost. So it makes perfect sense for the show to introduce a megacorporation without telling you what they produce. Digression ends.

For a second or two, a black screen appears: "PLACE NETWORK COMMERCIAL HERE". If you had tuned into this show on its first broadcast, you could be forgiven for not realizing that the episode is already well underway.

At last, a proper opening shot: The camera swoops over a stylized cityscape which makes no effort whatsoever to conceal it's a miniature. It's accompanied by a now-legendary caption: "20 MINUTES INTO THE FUTURE."

One skyscraper has a ZIK ZAK billboard so high up that nobody on the streets below could actually see it. This sly joke literally flies by you the first dozen times you see the sequence. One building stands out, almost twice as high as its surroundings. This imposing tower is marked "NETWORK 23 XXIII."

Max Headroom starts out as the story of Edison Carter, the network's most popular news reporter who fronts the "What I Want To Know Show." The show basically consists of Edison shoving his camera into people's faces, live on air, and asking impertinent questions. Gadfly journalism at its finest.

Edison Carter, on the airWe catch up with Edison as he is alone in the field, backed at the station by a "Controller" who tells him how to get into buildings without getting held up by the police, where to turn, which apartment to enter and the names of the people who he's about to accost.

Edison Carter is played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer in his prime. You might know him from "The Stand" or "Eureka." His hairline is already receding here, but it's compensated by a chiseled jaw. Frewer's tall and he has an authoritative, if a bit nasal, voice. From the first instant he appears, it's impossible not to root for this guy.

Carter's current assignment is to find out who died in a squalid apartment building and why the police are trying to suppress the story. Shortly after the widow of the victim is tasered into unconsciousness live on camera, the show's producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) gets a call from high up the TV station's corporate ladder, telling him to pull the story.

You might know Jeffrey Tambor from "The Larry Sanders Show" or "Arrested Development." If you don't, you should. With his moustache and puppy eyes, Murray is the weak parent kind of a supervisor. After objecting weakly, he passes the information on to Edison's controller.

Edison Carter's Controller is as unlikeable as Carter is charismatic. Gorrister is a chain-smoking paunchy guy who puts Carter off-air without a second thought -- with disastrous consequences. In the apartment building, the moment the policemen realize the camera light is off, they beat Carter up ("Report this!") and toss him onto the curb. Outside, two homeless guys immediately try to grab Carter's camera. Edison fights them off using the selfsame camera as a weapon and runs for the network's helicopter, to safety.

This is one of those sequences which makes the show look both dated and prophetic. All police officers are wearing riot gear. This must have seemed disquieting for 1987 audiences. Today it takes a minute to sink in. It's also worth noting that the police officers leave Edison to fend for himself when the bums on the street go for his TV camera. To serve the public trust, my tuchus.

Edison's escape to the network chopper is shown mostly through Carter's eyes, or rather through the lens of his camera which he keeps shouldered at all times. This vérité approach creates tension and an immediacy which still holds up.

Edison returns to the network with a gash on his forehead. This is a recurring theme, Edison Carter looking battered. Without a word, he walks up to Gorrister and punches him out of his chair: "It's my neck out there!" Had Gorrister kept recording Edison's camera output onto a backup tape, the reporter would have remained safe.

Carter tells Murray he can't work with Gorrister anymore: "I just want a Controller I can trust." When he hears from how high up the story was pulled, Edison Carter can't contain a tense smirk; the bloodhound has picked up the scent of something big.

This is where the show gets another crucial thing right: This is how investigative journalists get involved with their stories. A regular citizen might back off, sensing the danger. When a good investigative journalist senses resistance, his immediate instinct is to proceed full speed ahead.

We cut to the board room of Network 23 XIII. One shot of the room and it's obvious these are not nice people. The whole board wears suits, the room is mostly dark and the network's CEO is lit slightly from below. To boot, the CEO's name is Grossberg. Oddly enough, he exudes the same vibe as Eureka's Nathan Stark. Both characters are tall, thin, overly well-dressed and smug. The actors also speak in a similar manner and register, which makes the parallels even more unsettling.

One of these two young men is Bryce Lynch, evil computer geniusOn with the show. Grossberg schedules a conference call with the network's head of Research & Development who happens to be a 16-year old whiz kid Bryce Lynch (Chris Young). More eery similarities here: Not just the hair and the glasses are reminiscent of the infamous Bill Gates mugshot. Lynch also shares Gates' subtle aura of casual arrogance.

The video link conversation né web conference between teen geek Lynch and tight-tie Grossberg leads to the second run through the Zik Zak advertisement. This time, we also find out how the tenant in the squalid apartment building died, even though the the crucial moment is omitted.

It appears that Network 23 is experimenting with ultra-compressed advertisements called "Blipverts" which pack the sponsor's message into three seconds -- too fast for viewers to switch to another channel. Unfortunately, the blipverts have what Grossberg circumscribes as a "side effect." When viewed by extremely passive people, their nerve endings are overcharged by the advertising onslaught, causing them to explode. This is illustrated in a nice wireframe animation which Bryce Lynch seems to have prepared earlier.

Network 23's Executive BoardThe majority of Network 23's board doesn't really see the problem with this: "The only people that inactive are pensioners, the sick and the unemployed. Who really cares?" Only one board member objects, white-haired and pipe-smoking Ben Cheviot (George Coe). But even his main concern isn't about the actual Blipvert victims but with how people will react if the news gets out.

In a priceless moment, Lynch deflects a question whether he can do anything about the 3-second-ad's fatal consequences by answering: "I only invent the bomb, I don't drop it." Dr. Strangelove couldn't have said it better. Faced with the option of either continuing to broadcast Blipverts and kill some of their audience or losing their main advertising client to a competing network, the board obviously chooses the former. You can't blame this show for subtelity.

Time for a change of scenery: Enter Amanda Pays as Edison Carter's new Controller, Theora Jones. Pays is the other major cast member from the original telefilm. She's British and she doesn't bother to hide her occent aht oll. She doesn't have to, either: Male viewers are too busy ogling her and female viewers are way too surprised by the fact that this guy's show has suddenly gained a rock-solid, emancipated female co-lead. Like Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays has charisma in spades. She also has extremely expressive eyes and high cheekbones. Three years later, she would end up playing a variation of her Max Headroom role on another TV series, "The Flash."

Murray proudly explains that he pried Theora away from a competing network named "World One." Carter attempts to flirt with his new Controller, which she brushes off with routined ease. Murray admonishes Edison with the words: "No trouble, or I stop your pocket money," cementing the weak father role. To demonstrate her abilities, Theora hacks into the security camera of Network 23's executive washroom. She gets there via the waste pipe of the urinals, natch. Yes of course, that's how hacking actually works.

Digression Two: What was it with executive washrooms and script writers of the late 80's? The same year's RoboCop also features a crucial scene in the men's executive restroom. If anybody can cite additional examples, by all means post them in the comments. Digression ends.

As they stare at the empty washroom, Theora offers Edison a choice of alternate stories: a missing missile, a man who can sing (!) all of Shakespeare's works, the assassination of a medic team in Bolivia and the explosion of a nuclear submarine. Before Carter gets to choose, Grossberg and Ben enter the washroom. As Jones and Carter listen in, the executives argue about the blipverts, Bryce Lynch and Zik Zak.

No specifics are revealed, however. To get more information, Edison Carter decides to break into the executive offices. Theora finds Bryce's lab by scanning the network's medical records -- it's located in a hidden 13th floor of its 210-story building.

Bryce's parrotCarter heads for Bryce's lab, assisted by Theora's somewhat improbable yet impressive hacking -- she guesses Lynch's pass key via his star sign ("Libra, I might have guessed"). This is a somewhat more probable than the drain pipe backdoor: Password guessing through social engineering, just like the kid who broke into Sarah Palin's Yahoo e-mail. Again, this is a 1987 show.

Inside Bryce's lab, Edison Carter is startled by a caged parrot -- and its crude digital double on a computer screen. Both squawk. Carter doesn't quite realize what he has stumbled on. Just as he starts watching the tape of the exploding tenant which Bryce had previously presented to the network's board, the teen prodigy sics the building's guards on the trespassing reporter.

Turns out that even though Bryce was taking a bath with his rubber duckies (really!), he still kept tabs on his lab. The guards arrive just after Carter has finished watching and recording the incriminating tape. Unbeknownst to him, but beknownst to the viewer, the camera has been incapacitated by Bryce, but still: The journalist has finally seen what he wasn't supposed to see.

Note the Blipvert victim's party affiliation.To keep things interesting, the audience gets treated to an additional bit: In a blink-and-you'll-miss-it shot, the obese viewer messily explodes in his easy chair. Splat! Hello Mr. Cronenberg. Even better, the show conveys Edison's horror by pulling the camera back while zooming in -- Alfred Hitchcock's famous "Vertigo" effect.

In a fairly suspenseful action sequence, Edison Carter narrowly escapes the guards only to get caught in a hacking contest between Bryce and Theora: One tries to trap him, the other to rescue him. After all these years, it's still disturbing to see a sixteen-year old sitting at a computer in his bathrobe, smiling as he tries to kill a man by remote-controlling an elevator. Bryce Lynch is an amoral little bastard and he's loving every second of the chase.

In the building's underground garage, the situation comes to a head. To his dismay, Edison finds all the cars locked -- they are all identical 50's Studebakers. Out of options, Carter jumps onto a dirt bike just as the guards catch up with him. As he races towards the exit, Theora and Bryce struggle to remotely control the garage's barrier which is blocking Edison's escape route. Theora successfully manages to lock the barrier, but then Bryce raises a ramp, sealing our hero's fate.

As he crashes into the barrier, the last thing Edison Carter sees is the inscription of the barrier: "MAX HEADROOM 2.3m". It's nice to see that 20 minutes into the future, America has finally embraced the metric system.

We cut to Edison Carter lying unconscious on a table in Bryce's lab, his forehead bloody (again!) and two electrodes stuck to the sides of his head. On the computer monitor above him, a wireframe is beginning to form -- a wireframe in the shape of, gasp, Edison Carter's head!

Max Headroom 0.5Via video conference Lynch explains his somewhat harebrained scheme to Grossberg: He is replicating Carter's "synaptic circuits" into a computer simulation to find out what the reporter knows. "Just like the parrot!" Foreshadowing is always clearer in hindsight.

As Lynch tries to get his virtual Edison Carter to compile, Grossberg arranges to have his Controller killed: "I so hate wasting employees." The good news is that Grossberg goes after the beer-bellied and chain-smoking Gorrister instead of going after smoking-hot Theora Jones. Obviously it takes a few days for personnel changes to percolate up the chain of command.

Grossberg visits Lynch in his lab. At 26 minutes into the show, we finally get our first glimpse at the titular character: "Ma... ma... ma," which Lynch gets all wrong: "I think it's calling me mama!"

Lynch's confidence in his progress notwithstanding ("You're looking at the future, Mister Grossberg!"), Network 23's chairman decides to get rid of Carter: "I'm afraid our star reporter's going to have to disappear... permanently."

Grossberg hires two corpse-dealing punks to dispose of Edison's near-dead body. They sell Carter, whose right hand is still clutching his camera, to a "Body Bank." This is another clever invention: Instead of proper burials, corpses are hauled to body banks which resell them as spare parts for organ transplants and necrophiliacs.

In the lab, Bryce keeps tinkering with the plastic head on his screen which stammers "Ma.. ma... Max Headroom." Eventually, Max gets himself together for his first big quip. Staring straight at Lynch and Grossberg from his computer screen, he wonders: "Welcome to Network 23. Wanna check these ratings? I seem to have an audience of two."

Digression Three: This stutter was Max Headroom's trademark. When it happens, both the sound and Max's image loop. Some of Max's stutters are for dramatic effect, others actually serve to make punch lines work. The tic is occasionally endearing and frequently exasperating. Since it's extremely annoying to read, these reviews will omit the stut-stut-stuttering except when absolutely necessary. Digression ends.

The audience's very first look at MaxDue to fortuitous coincidence and poor screenwriting, Theora just so happens to check "Nightingale's Body Bank, open 24 hours" minutes after the delinquent punk rockers have delivered Edison Carter's not quite-dead carcass there. She purchases the body from Florence, the Body Bank's owner (get it?), and takes him home.

For future (heh) reference, the Nightingale's Bank can be reached via View-Phone at 01 555 7652. Please be aware that there is a 20 minute wait time before somebody will answer your call.

At the Network 23 boardroom, Grossberg, now starkly lit from below 'cause he's graduated to Major League Evil, has to deal with a crisis. After finding out about Carter's accident, board member Ben Cheviot had vetoed the broadcast of Zik Zak's three-second ads. Now the ratings have dropped by two percent, equaling six million viewers. Zik Zak has threatened to take their ads elsewhere and the board is up in arms.

The resulting discussion of Network 23's board is both priceless and timeless. Ben Cheviot, the white-haired voice of reason, explains the situation: "We can't reinstate Blipverts, they're lethal and you know it." Edwards, a roundish guy with glasses, a moustache and a receding hairline, boldly retorts: "That hasn't been proven." Exasperated, Ben exclaims: "What the hell do you need, a live demonstration?" Cut to a close-up of Grossberg, sneering: "Ben, I find that tasteless." Blipverts are reinstated and Cheviot leaves the room in a huff.

This gives Grossberg the opportunity for his grand announcement: "This network has the world's first completely programmable presenter!" The CEO's delight at a computerized newsman is cut short, however, when Max Headroom asks: "Executive Boardroom? You mean you're the people who execute audiences?" Grossberg nearly manages to salvage the situation before Max follows up with "Yes, tune into Network 23, the network that's a real mind-blower. And I loooove those Blipverts." The board doesn't take this well at all.

Grossberg demands that Lynch should erase Max Headroom's memory, prompting Max to hide inside the network's computer memory. Lynch tries to stonewall Grossberg with a bit of condescension, but the damage is done: "He's gone. He's escaped into the system." Cut to Max broadcasting himself on a multitude of screens on the derelict wastelands that surround the city.

F. NightingaleThe next morning, Edison Carter wakes up in Theora Jones' bed, surrounded by plushies. There's even a bear resting on his chest. For a moment, Carter presumes that something else might have happened the previous night: "You mean we didn't..." "No we did not!" Clearly, Theora is insulted.

Bryce tries to get Max Headroom off the air, who is hawking Zik Zak's "1000 Volt Christian Converter -- just plug yourself in and your friends will see the light. A very large flash of light."

Grossberg threatens Bryce Lynch with "permanent unemployment." This doesn't impress the young geek nearly as much as Max Headroom's methods to evade all attempts to block or shut him down.

With five minutes of showtime to go, the plot finally starts to heat up. The executive board realizes that Network 23's ratings are rising ever since Max invaded the airwaves. In the TV news office, Theora reveals to Murray that Edison Carter will crash Goldberg's impending press conference. As a byproduct of some last-minute hacking, our heroes discover Max Headroom (who unsettingly peeks back at them with his bright blue eyes).

Edison tries to get Lynch to surrender the tape documenting the exploding TV viewer. Without so much as batting an eyelash, Bryce does a complete turnaround from heel to ally: "I thought you were dead. (Pause) I'm glad you're not."

Bryce Max and EdisonOnce Bryce has improbably turned white-hat, he explains he doesn't have the tape anymore. However, Max has stored it in his electronic memory from where they can record it. After yet another quick run-through of the Zik Zak ad, program director Murray calls board member Bob Cheviot for guidance. Bob tells him: "Do what you have to, Murray." Once he hangs up, the camera pulls back to reveal Cheviot sitting at the head of the empty executive boardroom. Corporate maneuvering at its best.

The episode ends with Grossberg announcing Edison Carter's death to reporters at his press conference, only to be interrupted by a very much alive Edison who thrusts his camera into Grossberg's face with the words: "And now I'd like your comment on the revolutionary form of advertising called... Blipverts. And their shocking and lethal side effects..." Close-up on an extremely anxious Grossberg.

This should be the end of the episode -- go out on a high. Instead, we continue with Carter being welcomed back to the newsroom. As he scans the crowd, he pulls out a small plush bear from his pocket -- one he'd pulled off his shoulder in Theora's bedroom -- and playfully throws it at his Controller.

Cut to a TV screen with Max announcing that he'll be back in a few moments with more from Network 23, followed by what can only be described as a closing monologue with rather flat jokes. "How can you tell when our network president is lying? (pause) His lips move." Cue closing credits.

So much for the play-by-play.

Analysis

Overall, Max Headroom holds up well. It continues to amaze that a TV network would willingly broadcast a show which was essentially a harsh critique of how media manipulates and is manipulated. 

At the time the series was broadcast, networks were already cross-breeding investigative journalism with tabloid reporting. This led to controversial personality shows fronted by personalities such as Geraldo Rivera and Morton Downey Jr. among others. Max Headroom's skewering of TV politics wasn't quite quite as innovative as many seem to think: The behind-the-scenes machinations seen here are mostly an extrapolation from Sidney Lumet's movie "Network" -- and that ran eleven years before.

The pilot episode is significantly inferior to its source, the British TV movie made two years previously. At first glance, both tell the same story. Looking closer, there are significant differences. Its additional ten minutes of running time lead up to an entirely different conclusion: Instead of staying at Network 23, Max Headroom becomes the star of a pirate TV station led by a old punk who is played by William Morgan Sheppard. The original Bryce Lynch was even creepier, he also remains a villain to the end -- a gamble the TV series didn't dare to follow.

This is the major weak point in the US version: From one breath to the next, Lynch changes from an amoral teen prodigy to an avid Edison Carter fan. This character development ex-machina stands in jarring contrast to the Bryan Lynch who gleefully tried to kill Edison Carter from his computer terminal and showed no concern for the victims of his Blipverts. It's hard to believe that Matt Frewer's chiseled jaw has that much of an impact on a teenage boy, unless of course... okay, let's not go there.

So yes, the show starts off with a flawed pilot. However, the plot's weaknesses are more than outweighed by the many things it gets right. Our heroes show the right amount of charisma. Charles Rocket plays Network 23's Grossberg as the single-minded piece of yuppie slime he simply has to be. George Coe's portrayal of network executive Ben Cheviot is also dead-on: He's one of those warm, paternal types whose soft voice masks a resolve of steel. The way he stealthily proceeds to outmaneuver Grossberg is sublime.

Max Headroom broadcasting himselfThe production design is gloriously kooky. The pilot finds little time to show the future sprawling outside the Network 23 tower, something remedied in later episodes. As it is, we get glimpses of the homeless living in trash heaps which go as far as the eye can see; we are introduced to the body banks and we meet some of the local wildlife. Apart from the owner of the body bank, these are mainly Grossberg's two punk flunkies. When they bicker about whether to saw off Edison Carter's hand in order to sell the camera separately or whether they will get more for the body if it's still complete, it's both funny and suitably disturbing.

M-Max Headroom himself is intriguing, annoying and funny at the same time. Much of the credit for this goes to the man behind the mask. Far from actually being computer-generated, Max actually is Matt Frewer's second role on the show. Since he does have enough charisma for two people, the producers apparently decided to take full advantage of that fact.

Frewer wears prosthetic makeup, a plastic wig and suit and bright blue contact lenses. Shooting conditions must have been tough. The trademark stutter was added using analogue video effects. If anything, the only CGI involved here is the shifting line pattern behind Max.

Will Conservatives Like This Episode?

Whether you will enjoy Max Headroom or not depends to a large part on whether you like fun house mirrors. Future corporate America is portrayed as powerful, hungry for more and deeply amoral, i.e. same-old, only worse. Network 23's board features three archetypes of corporate leadership: Grossberg will do anything to maintain his lead, Cheviot carefully weighs profits against public opinion and Edwards will side with whoever's sitting at the top of the table.

The moral rot of the Max Headroom universe goes way deeper, though. It has seeped through into the general populace, eroding all appreciation of the value of human life. Edison Carter may be our hero, but even he sees the Blipverts purely as a story. Look closer and Max turns out to be even more caustic -- something future episodes will explore. Only Murray and Theora Jones get to display something like basic compassion. 20 minutes into the future is a very cold place. Without those two people, it'd be unbearable.

Overall episode rating: *** (out of four)

Join us in three weeks as we look at Max Headroom's second episode, "Rakers." The entire US series is currently out on DVD from Shout Factory at a suggested retail price of 30 US-$.

Since the show was edited on video, the image is a bit on the soft side, but that shouldn't deter you. Closed captions are provided for the hearing impaired. Apparently due to licensing issues, the UK TV movie is not included -- so far it's only seen the light of DVD in Japan. It has English and Japanese audio, but only Japanese subtitles.

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