April 6, 1987


Let's face it: Max Headroom has been selling out. The computer-generated talk-show host made his mark on cable TV by embodying (if that can be said of a bodiless head) the inanities and fatuities of television itself. Having secured a hip young following, Max proceeded to hustle up a spokesmachine contract with Coca-Cola and enough merchandising spinoffs to keep him in microchips forever. But come to think of it, isn't selling out just another fact of the television life he's supposed to represent? So onward Max -- into the ultimate showcase for self-compromise, a prime-time network series. Happily, ABC's "Max Headroom," which premieres this week, is saturated with the wickedly parodic smarminess that Head freaks so cherish. A video cult may be about to reach critical mass.

Blending the eerie claustrophobia of Terry Gilliam's film "Brazil" with the cynical bite of Paddy Chayevsky's "Network," this futuristic satire kicks off by explaining Max's genesis. TV investigative reporter Edison Carter (Canadian actor Matt Frewer) discovers that his superiors at Network 23 have hit upon a nifty way to counteract channel-switching during commercials: they're secretly compressing 30 seconds of advertising into three-second "blipverts" that blast their message across before a viewer can tune out. The one small hitch is that blipverts so overload the brain that heavy TV-watchers are literally blowing their tops. When Edison vows to expose this unfortunate side effect, his bosses dispatch hit men to eliminate him. After the fleeing reporter crashes into a road overpass (marked with the warning "Max. Headroom"), a mischevious computer whiz clones the comatose Edison's psyche onto a disk drive and creates his video alter ego -- an all-electronic talking head who christens hiself with the last words he glimpsed before his accident.

Now begins the fun. As Max and the revived Edison team up to bring down Network 23, the series shows us what life might be like if (not that big an if) our cathode-ray culture became our only culture. Not only are all TV sets produced without Off sitches but they visually record how their viewers respond to what they're viewing. At the local "Ad Market," second-by-second fluctuations in the ratings of the world's 4,000 channels are displayed on a stock-exchange-style board, stirring a continual frenzy of buy-and-sell orders for commericial time. Show packagers, meanwhile, instigate small-scale wars, then offer nework news divisions exclusive rights to their coverage. All this is depicted with computerized special effects dazzling enough to make this series look like no other. "Max Headroom" is a network genre unto itself: call it New-Wave TV.

MISTER TV: Of course it's Max who must ultimately carry the show. Executive producer Peter Wagg, who helped create the character for British television two years ago, has Americanized this latest version without losing any of its universitality in translation. Max is TV incarnate -- vinyl slick, deeply superficial and equipped with the attention span of an amoeba. Yet give him this: he dares to byte the hand that feeds him. "Know how to tell when a network president's lying?" he asks the audience. "His lips move." Congratuations, ABC, for letting that one get by. Now we'd like to hear what Max thought of "Amerika."

(Harry F. Waters)