Stylistically, "Max Headroom" might be described as a full sensory experience. While borrowing some of its atmospherics from recent cinema fantasies, the series manages to look
like nothing ever designed for the small screen. Its grimy streetscapes, suffused with smoke and lit by garish neon, exude the eerie claustrophobia of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." Like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," the show deliberately mixes up its periods, furnishing its high-tech interiors with circa 1930s antiques. All the cars are Studebakers. Extras sport punk hairdos and balinese sarongs. Policemen are costumed in armored breast plates and baseball caps. "Function doesn't follow form here," chuckles producer Brian Frankish. "We oppose function with form. In this show you can hold the camera upside down and be believable."
The series also calls to mind some of MTV's farthest-out videos like Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," with its free-floating animations, and Prince's "Raspberry Beret," in which the singer seems to have been sliced and diced by a berserk computer. Yet, in effect, "Max Headroom" has carried the MTV revolution into another dimension. Indeed, a rock-video freak dialing from "Max" to MTV might conclude that the latter suddenly appears downright stodgy. Perhaps that's because this series has fused its avant-garde pyrotechnics onto a genuine, and sustained, story line, then enriched the blend with whiz-bang pacing and slyly understated acting. The early ratings were mixed: millions of "Headroom" cultists gave the show respectable numbers for a highly experimental new series, yet it was equally clear that millions more literally tuned out with a kind of what-the-heck-is-this reaction. Still, even if the show fails to survive, bits and pieces of its ingenuity are virtually certain to filter into the rest of prime time.
Self-exposure: Yet "Max" may end up changing more than just how network television looks to viewers. This thoroughly subversive video parody could revise how network TV looks upon itself. "The deliciousness of the show," muses executive producer Peter Wagg, "is that a network is allowing us to show how the system works, how ratings are important, why Americans are given the same old material."
It seems no accident that this breakthrough comedy team is almost exclusively British. "American TV largely turns out predigested bunk, says "Max" writer Steve Roberts. "That's a guarantee of failure. But if someone twinkles TV's knobs, people will queue up to watch. 'Max' is challenging because it looks at the world in unorthodox ways. Europeans poke fun at their institutions as second nature, but that's not a habit here. You respect authority in a real way. You criticize and doubt it, but you don't mock it like Dickens and Monty Python."
Having been savvy enough to discern this cultural dissimilarity, Roberts and his coconspirators shrewdly packaged their mockery in the wrappings of a traditional scifi thriller. True, Max himself is not exactly the typical invention of your standard mad scientist. He came into being after Edison Carter (Canadian actor Matt Frewer), investigating a network plot to subliminally brainwash viewers, crashed his motorcycle through a parking-lot gate marked with the warning,
"Max. Headroom 2.3m."
Somehow the network's teenage chief of research replicated the unconscious Edison's psyche on a computer drive. Thus was born Max Headroom (christened with the last words he remembered before blacking out.) He's a disembodied head with a slight stutter--the result of a glitch in his software--who lives only on a TV screen but has an uncanny ability to poke his image into anything, anytime, on the airwaves.
Yet if Max is a completely unique creation (call him the ultimate deus ex machina), he basically functions as just another superhero, a kind of robotic Clark Kent to root out evil at Network 23. There's even a Lois Lane on hand, a cooly beautiful computer controller named Theora Jones (British actress-model Amanda Pays). Of course "Superman" never knocked the comics the way this series trashed the medium that's bringing
it home. After delivering a pitch for one of Network 23's sponsors, Max ad-libs a mischievous postscript: "Ever wonder why Zik Zak burgers come in plastic packs? Some of the plastic rubs off on the burger and doubles the nutritional value." Last week Max led into a string of ABC commercials by informing viewers: "I just can't wa-wa-wait to see these (pause while his head slumped onto his shoulder). Wake me up when they're finished, will you?"
Obviously, this talking head has a mind of its own. But there's an irony here that Max would be the last to comprehend. For all his scoffing at the system, he is, in actuality, the quintessential product of his times--a pop icon designed and manufactured for the video generation with an almost scientific precision. Let's rewind his saga: