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Featured TV on DVD Review: Max Headroom: The Complete Series

August 5th, 2010

Max Headroom: The Complete Series - Buy from Amazon

Any child of the 1980s will instantly recognize the name "Max Headroom". The character was a cultural phenomenon and he appeared in ads for numerous products, most famously New Coke, as well as guest shots on several shows, and even he had a hit song with "Paranoimia." He started in a British TV movie called Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, which piqued interest in the United States and became the basis for Max Headroom, a TV series than ran for parts of two seasons. (Only 14 episodes were made, which is fewer than one full season.) It has been nearly 25 years since the show first aired, but has time been kind to it? Or has his vision of the future faded into the past?

The Show

Matt Frewer plays the dual role of star reporter for Network 23, Edison Carter and Max Headroom. While looking in on a story of a mysterious and violent death, he learns it might be his network that is responsible. He sneaks into a top-secret research facility within network HQ, but during his escape, he is involved in a motorcycle accident (which wasn't an accident), and he is nearly killed. (It's not quite a coma, but it's close.) This is a bit of a problem for the bad guys, as they need to know what he knows so they can decide what to do with him. He is the biggest reporter in the world and that means he makes the network a lot of profits. However, if he knows too much, they have to get rid of him. Bryce Lynch, child genius, has a solution. He's been working on a way to "download" the human mind onto a computer. If he can do that with Carter, they will be able to question the downloaded consciousness and make their decision. However, this process doesn't quite work out they way they intended, and Max Headroom is the result.

In the show, Headroom is a computer A.I. with all of memories of Edison Carter, but because he was just "born", he doesn't have any of his impulse control. (And quite frankly, Carter lacks impulse control as well.) Max Headroom also doesn't have a lot of life experience, so he becomes quite confused on the nature of TV vs. Reality. (In one episode he freaks out over a mad man with a machine gun going around killing people, but it's just a character from a TV show.)

Joining Max / Carter are his controller, Theora Jones. Controllers are a reporter's link to the network HQ and with access to building schematics, hacking skills, etc., so she tries to keep him out of trouble. Tries to. Their boss is Murray. (It's always fun seeing Jeffrey Tambor on TV.) Murray's a little neurotic, but that's understandable, since he has to deal with Edison, who can be a prima donna at times. And he has to deal with the executives, who are always concerned with the latest ratings. (In the future, ratings are delivered in real time.) Plus Max seems to take pleasure in annoying Murray. Strangely, despite causing the accident that nearly killed Edison Carter, Bryce Lynch quickly becomes a major ally. It seems he's not a bad guy per se, but if he is presented with a challenging task, he will overlook any moral implications it might have.

Outside of the network, they have regular dealings with Blank Reg and his partner, Dominique. Blank Reg runs a pirate TV station, and is, as the name would suggest, a Blank, someone who has removed his name from all official databases for reasons of privacy, which is one of many issues dealt with in the show, along with the packaging of terrorism to improve news ratings, sports turned into gladiatorial games, the state of democracy, law & order, the commercialization of life, and of course mass entertainment as a way to placate the masses. (In the future, it is illegal to have an off button on your TV.) Without getting into too much detail on any individual episode, because I don't want to spoil them, the show does present the Cyber Punk aesthetic / philosophy very well. It is quite amazing that the show was able to do such strong social commentary against TV... on a TV show. Some of the "futuristic" aspects of the show now seem perfectly quaint, but others are just as relevant today as they were when the show first aired.

On the other hand, the TV series does look a little... I don't want to say cheap looking, but that's the phrase that pops into my mind. Some of this is an artistic choice. For instance, the "fly over" shots of the city are clearly just a model, but it looks stylistic and not simply cheap.

I was a child of the 1980s and Max Headroom is simply part of my childhood. I have Art of Noise's "Paranoia" in my heavy rotation MP3 playlist. For me, this DVD was a must-have from the minute it was announced. Having seen it for the first time in twenty years, it has aged quite well. Production values are a little low compared to what you would see on TV today, but the content and social messages hold up very well.

The Extras

The five disc set has no extras on the first four discs, but the fifth disc is nothing but extras, starting with an hour-long making-of featurette. A number of members of the creative crew are present to give their recollections on the origin of the character and the show (the character came first, which I think is unusual), how the character developed into a movie, how the movie was written and cast, production, etc. It is very in-depth and fans of the show should be intrigued, as well as a little saddened to see how it ended.

Looking Back At The Future and The Big-Time Blank has almost all of the cast coming back and talking about the show. Amanda Pays, Jeffery Tambor, Chris Young, Chris Young's mustache (it deserves a separate billing), Morgan Sheppard, and Concetta Tomei sit down for these two featurettes. Sadly, Matt Frewer doesn't show up, but the ones we do see certainly have a lot of stories to talk about for nearly 50 minutes.

The writers get a turn with The Science Behind the Fiction (12 minutes) and The Writers Remember (11 minutes). The first has George Stone talking about how he got into science fiction in general and how that influenced the writing in Max Headroom. The second has Michael Cassutt and Steve Roberts, which is much more specific to Max Headroom.

Finally there's Producing Dystopia, which is eight minutes with Brian Frankish on how he helped create the look of the show.

The Verdict

Here's an interesting bit of trivia. When put up against the original Coke and Pepsi in blind taste tests, New Coke would win almost all the time. However, to this day New Coke is considered one of the biggest marketing mistakes of all time.

Max Headroom: The Complete Series is absolutely a must-have for fans of the show. Not only has the show itself aged well, but there's almost two-and-a-half hours of interview featurettes on the fifth disc, which is certainly better than most short-run TV shows get when they come out on DVD. Hell, it's better than a lot of concurrent shows get when they come out on DVD. It's even enough to be a contender for Pick of the Week.

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