Remembering Max Headroom, a visionary TV show

max headroom newsweek

In 1984 I joined Intel as their graphic workstations  were shrinking from video arcade sized units to large desktop computers. In my spare time, I sometimes played with a Commodore64 and saved quarters for Space Invaders. The first IBM personal computer did not roll out until the following year.

That was the state of technology when Max Headroom was born.  The creation of a British trio, George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton, Max was an artificially intelligent, disembodied personality who lived in cyberspace before the term was coined.  Computer animation wasn’t advanced enough to portray the computerized look the group was after, so filming Max required a four hour makeup session that actor Matt Frewer described as “a very painful, torturous and disgusting enterprise.”

Rocky Morton described Max as a “very sterile, arrogant, Western personification of the middle-class, male TV host,” but he was also “media-wise and gleefully disrespectful,” which endeared him to younger viewers.

Max appeared on American TV in 1987, as a talking head – literally – in a TV newsroom in a dystopian near-future dominated by large corporations and television.  Although he became a spokesman for “The New Coke,” and appeared on Sesame Street, only 13 shows aired.

Part of the problem was that Max was down right irritating, with his visual and vocal stutter and an op-art background that was the best computer animation could do at the time.  Here is a 3o second sample from his Coke commercial:

The fact remains that Max Headroom was decades ahead of his time. In one episode, for instance, terrorists blow up all TV towers in the city, pushing the population to riot when they find they have nothing to watch. In the nick of time, city officials pacify everyone by distributing hand-held video viewers loaded with old reruns.

Remember, this was 1987, when the best technology Hollywood had to offer wasn’t enough to capture the vision of Max’s creators.

So what brought Max Headroom to mind right now?  Beyond Max’s “dystopian future dominated by large corporation and television” that is.  Why today, December 3, 2012?

Yesterday, after  a series of storms, I ventured out to the supermarket and walked in just as they played the Christmas carol holiday song I hate most, “Little Saint Nick,” by the Beach Boys.  I had to compliment the store, however – the sound was just barely audible.  Not loud enough to cause real annoyance, I thought, but enough to keep silence at bay, which might cause people to riot.

That brought Max to mind.  “Ha-ha-ha-happy Ho-ho-holidays, everyone.”

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4 Responses to Remembering Max Headroom, a visionary TV show

  1. … I am grinning like an idiot right now. Let Nostalgia Reign! ❤

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    • I remember surprisingly little about ’80’s popular culture. Tom Baker’s Dr. Who with the Daleks is the only other thing that comes to mind. “Exterminate!”

      Isn’t the human mind wondrous?

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  2. Rosi says:

    I may have been the only person around who didn’t watch the show. I do remember seeing the ad. I just thought Max was annoying, but watching the ad now, maybe I missed something. It was pretty funny.

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    • What struck me when Max came to mind is that like Rodney Dangerfield, he gets no respect when people discuss the evolution of the internet, compared to something like Neil Stephenson’s futuristic vision in Snow Crash, 1992. I reviewed the book here and never thought of Max at the time.

      If our emerging cyber world is about anything, it certainly is about collapsing some of our 20th century hierarchies in terms of media. Like the assumption that novels are necessarily more serious or worthy of consideration than TV shows. That the New York Times necessarily has better social commentary than the Simpsons.

      I read last summer that production has started on the movie version of Snow Crash – 20 years after. Unfortunately, the plot was kind of muddled. The real impact is to look at the culture and the internet now and be amazed that Stephenson called it so accurately. It will be harder to be amazed by a movie when so much in the novel has already come to pass. But I ramble…

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