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'Max Headroom': There's still time to catch the wave

The Max Headroom Show
"Max Headroom," looking surprisingly current on DVD. (Shout! Factory)

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By Jen Chaney
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, August 10, 2010; 12:00 AM

Most people consider Max Headroom an artifact of the 1980s, the sort of personality that -- like Teddy Ruxpin or Clara Peller of "Where's the beef?" fame -- most of us only pause to think about while overdosing on pop culture nostalgia. But Headroom, a multi-platform brand and a CGI avatar before most of us knew such terms existed, just might have the capacity to stutter his way back into relevancy again.

At least that's the impression one gets from watching "Max Headroom: The Complete Series," the short-lived ABC sci-fi drama spawned by the popularity of the square-jawed talk show host and debuting Tuesday on DVD ($49.97). Dated as far as visual quality and fashion choices go but amazingly forward-thinking in terms of its plotlines, "Headroom" was a show set "20 minutes into the future" and focused on muckracking investigative reporter Edison Carter (Matthew Frewer), a journalist determined to expose hypocrisy in a world where corporations run everything and ratings rule the news world. (Yeah, really hard to imagine.) Headroom -- whose identity preexisted the series thanks to his appearances on a British music video show, the Art of Noise hit "Paranoimia" and in a series of famous Coke commercials -- figures into the plot almost as a sidebar. In the pilot, Carter gets knocked unconscious, during which time his memories are used to create a computerized, more sarcastic alter ego dubbed Max Headroom, an electronic smartmouth who pops up on TV screens to make sarcastic commentary. ("How can you tell when our network president is lying?" Max quips at the end of one episode. "His lips move.")

Max may have given the show its hook, but the heart of "Max Headroom" lies in that semi-dystopian, not-so-distant future, a place where reality-style game shows act as narcotics, terrorist organizations sell exclusive footage of their activities to audience-hungry networks and reporters are guided through tricky situations by computer-controllers, the Chloes to their Jack Bauers. It's pretty prescient material, especially considering that it was presented to the American public -- who, with "Headroom" on opposite "Dallas" and "Miami Vice," largely ignored the program -- way back in 1987. Executive story editor Steve Roberts describes it as a show based on "the concept that we will all eventually be digital as individuals." You can't get much more "right now" than that.

The substantial extras that come with the DVD -- including an hour-long making-of documentary and several featurettes, but no deleted scenes or commentary tracks -- do a very comprehensive job of explaining the toil involved in putting the show on the air. But even more engagingly, they provide an informative history of how Headroom, the personality, evolved. The original British creators of the character all weigh in during the doc "Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom," sharing a number of fascinating anecdotes, including the fact that Max was never digital at all; his computerized persona was created by packing prosthetics onto Frewer, lighting the actor in a way that made Max appear electronic and editing the live-action footage to make him seem to be speaking to the world via a terribly slow acoustic modum connection. George Stone, one of those co-creators, also notes that the name Max Headroom derived from the most obvious of places: the warning signs that appeared in England's parking garages. "Max. Headroom was over the entranceway of every car park in the UK," he says proudly. "Instant branding, instant recognition."

Interviews with crew and cast members from the ABC series -- including Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Morgan Sheppard and executive producer Peter Wagg, but not Frewer -- also take us behind the scenes, including the day when production shut down mid-scene because ABC had pulled the plug. ("I'll never forget it," Tambor says of that sad moment, "because I went, 'Wow. That is show biz.'") Fans will relish every minute while, admittedly, those who don't remember "Headroom" may not find the show to be quite their cup of cyberpunk tea. But at the least, they will be impressed by the currency of its technospeak.

Watching "Max Headroom" in the year 2010 is a reminder that what once was "20 minutes into the future" is, 20 years later, what's happening right this second.


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