leader: More than any other Max factor, the
Coke campaign helped Wagg get inside a network's
door. Not that he didn't encounter some
resistance. When Wagg took his proposal for a
series starring Max to NBC, head programmer
Brandon Tartikoff--normally an eager embracer of
the innovative--flatly turned him down. CBS, for
its part, would only commit to a movie of the
week. That left ABC, which, as the last-place
network, probably had the least to lose by taking a flier on Max. ABC entertainment president
Brandon Stoddard, reports Wagg, told him to make
the show his way and that the network would find
an audience for it.
That doesn't mean ABC handed Wagg
control over every inch of footage. Its
overseers killed a scene in which an orbiting
satellite malfunctions and wipes out a village.
Staffers suspected that ABC was leery of casting
any aspersions on President Reagan's Star Wars
program. One could sympathize with the staffers,
except that the scene was so heavy-handed: after
all, the satellite bore the name "Reagan III."
Of greater concern is whether the
show itself stays in orbit. To employ the
hacker's vernacular, "Max Headroom" is not easy
to access. Try to imaging the viewer who never
logged onto the computer craze and who thinks
"video game" means "Wheel of Fortune" suddenly
coming upon Max in an "isometric optical" mode.
(That would be like a comic-strip fan of, say,
"Blondie" turning for the first time to
"Doonesbury." What's that weird guy with the
machete doing inside Ronald Reagan's brain?)
"Max Headroom" is one TV series that makes
few concessions to the uninitiated: it expects
them to connect on its own terms, even though the terminology may be maddeningly abstruse. Should
the series prove to be too esoteric and be yanked from mainstream America's televisions, Maxheads
will still have a way to maintain their habit. Cinemax has decided to produce a home-grown batch of episodes. Scheduled to be shot next month in
a New York studio, the series, which will recast
its star in his old role of talk-show host,
should appear on the cable channel this summer.
On the other hand, if ABC's version does well enough in the ratings to become a network fixture in the fall, Max may confront a different sort of dilemma. No matter how sophisticated he seems to high-tech hipsters, the character remains, in essence, a gimmick. And commercial TV has a way of chewing up gimmicks as fast as it discards yesterday's hit sitcom. It's not inconceivable that Max Headroom, if overly exposed, could end up as just another Muppet--or, for that matter, a bigger joke than Dr. Ruth. Nothing would be more distressing than to witness a brilliant parody of TV turn into a TV cliché.
Alter ego: The makers of Max, as it happens, are intensely cognizant of such risks. So much so that they are already hatching plans to give the series some new dimensions. Talk about strange triangles: Theora Jones, it seems, will grow so attached to Max that Edison Carter begins displaying all the symptoms of a rejected swain. Edison and his alter ego will also play off each other in a somewhat different fashion. "Right now," observes Matt Frewer, "Edison finds Max a real pain in the ass and Max thinks Edison is a drag. Max is Edison on acid and Edison is Max on Quaaludes." But next season the humanoid will become more human. "Max is really a figure of tragedy," Frewer goes on. "He can never experience anything in an emotional way. If we're picked up by ABC, you'll see him acquire his version of human feelings."
A delicious hint of what such a transformation might forebode comes up in next week's episode. Edison and Max discover that a mysterious artificial-intelligence unit, called A-7, is being unwittingly utilized to wreck all of the world's security systems. Naturally, Max is assigned to convince A-7 to abandon its role in the plot. But during the course of their conversations, Max develops a soft spot for his adversary, who, because it has a high voice, he concludes is a "she." When Edison finally manages to disconnect the unit and begins dragging it off for reprogramming, Max sets up a howl. "Treat A-7 with some respect," he admonishes. "She's not just a machine!"
Holy holograph! Is Max smitten with the first creature who ever warmed his circuitry? If so, could he and A-7 arrrange to consummate their electronic attraction? Might they conceive a computer-generated "child?" And might that child, after becoming a regular member of the cast, eventually go off to star in its own spinoff?
Mind-blowing stuff--and yet, after all, isn't that what Max Headroom is basically about? He makes us think about television in a whole new way.
"Mad About Max"
Harry F. Waters with Janet Huck in Los Angeles
and Vern E. Smith in Atlanta.
Amanda Pays profile by Jennet Conant
with Lynda Wright in Los Angeles.