Max Headroom
October 17, 2008

I wasn’t old enough to appreciate how good Max Headroom was when it was on the first time. Now, having recently rewatched the 14 existing episodes (and read the unproduced script), the question of the day is: why isn’t this on DVD?!?!

Although it ran from 1987-1988, it’s a remarkably modern show. Visually, its Brazil-meets-Blade Runner approach, using older technology (like manual typewriter keyboards) to suggest the future, is watchable without seeming outdated. In terms of content, the plots tackled still-timely subjects like identity in an online world, credit problems, vat-grown children for the spoiled upper class, a populace made sonambulent by advertising, and my favorite, how to fight censorship when the censors control the media and want to prevent people from learning to read. To quote its tagline, it still feels “20 minutes into the future”.

Matt Frewer (currently intermittently on Eureka as the Australian hunter) played both roving reporter Edison Carter and his computer-generated alter ego Max Headroom. (Max wasn’t really computer-generated, just Frewer in a plastic suit and makeup with some post-production treatment.) Amanda Pays was his Network 23 controller Theora Jones, running the computer from base while Carter took his videocam to the field. When he got onto the wrong story, they tried to kill him, resulting in his brain being dumped into an experimental personality program and the birth of Max, who would say anything (no matter how true or obnoxious) in his distinctive stutter.

Here’s an in-character audio explanation of the show, and a list of the show’s predictions about the future that came true, as well as technical trivia. There’s also a partially built fansite.

Ratings were never very good for the show, as is typical of thinking science fiction on television. Additionally, one might speculate that any TV network (back in the days when that still meant something) might have been uncomfortable with a show that postulates networks running the world and engaging in all kinds of unpleasant chicanery in the pursuit of ratings. Then there’s Max becoming better known as a spokesperson for the wannabe hip New Coke launch — being associated with such a notable failure doesn’t bode well for the character’s legacy.

As to why it’s not legally available (although plenty of people will sell you DVD sets of varying qualities), the major reason is likely rights. In the U.S., Max Headroom was made by Lorimar, and who knows what’s up with them these days? In the meantime, several of the episodes are available on AOL Video. I still want an official DVD set, though, with crisp reproduction and retrospective documentaries. Until then, let’s sing along with Max and the Art of Noise.

PS Wikipedia says that Comico released a promo poster of Max saying, “Comics will never be the same again”. I couldn’t find an image of this online — anyone seen it/have a picture?

Update: Here’s what that poster looked like, with that lovely 80s teal background:

9 Responses  
odessa steps magazine writes:  

There used to a be a VHS release of, I think, the British pilot. IIRC, the Editor and the kid were played by British actors, but Frewer and Amanda Pays (hello, teenage crush) were in it.

Ed Sizemore writes:  

I remember the show. I liked it and was sorry to see it have such a short run.

Vincent Murphy writes:  

If I recall correctly, Max Headroom was a victim of the Cosby Show, like so many other decent shows.

I really do wish this was on DVD, though: Some really nice, biting satire.

Mike Whalen writes:  

Bravo ran all the episodes a number of years back as part of their TV too Good for TV series. No commercial interruption as I recall.

The British movie was a bit darker, but it was quite good as well. aYes, it’s a real shame it’s not available.

Johanna writes:  

Oh, that explains why several of the episodes I saw had that Bravo bug on the screen.

I just want a “real” version because some of the ones floating around are awfully dark, and it’s hard to make things out.

Vincent, some sources say it went up against Miami Vice at its height.

Ragtime writes:  

Although it ran from 1987-1988, it’s a remarkably modern show. Visually, its Brazil [1985]-meets-Blade Runner [1982] approach,

I think your problem may be that you have dated yourself in not thinking that Brazil and Blade Runner are dated.

I remember liking them in 1987, but when I saw they were online, I found them unwatchable. Actual darkness as a substitute for a dark tone.

Johanna writes:  

Ha ha – true enough. But I do think that retro ages less badly than (for a contrasting example) the futuristic skin-tight suits of something like Tron or Buck Rogers.

Watchmen: Tales of the Black Freighter / Under the Hood » Comics Worth Reading writes:  

[…] interviewing Sally Jupiter (Carla Gugino) with lots of images mocking pinup photos of the era. And Max Headroom (Matt Frewer) is Moloch! Plus, a fake ad for Veidt’s perfume Nostalgia, and period ads for […]

Max Headroom Comes to DVD! » DVDs Worth Watching writes:  

[…] Warner Bros. and Shout! Factory. Shout! Factory will be the exclusive media company to distribute Max Headroom and The Norm Show DVDs for home entertainment releases in the United States and Canada. … […]


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