Max Headroom
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Newsweek April 20, 1987

Mad About Max
the Making of a Video Cult
Harry F. Waters with Janet Huck in Los Angeles and Vern E. Smith in Atlanta.

Conceived in an animation laboratory, sliced and diced through a computer, a semihuman talking head becomes a multimedia megastar. .

The time is "20 minutes into the future" and all over the city TV screens are going blank. Since this city is both entirely dependent upon and totally dominated by television, panic sets in: people are even raiding each other's homes for old video recordings. Enter Edison Carter, ace investigative reporter for Network 23. Carter quickly discovers who is sabotaging the TV transmissions. It's the "Blanks," a band of terroristic urban outcasts who have used their computer skills to wipe themselves off all official records. Now the Blanks are trying to pull the city's plug. Whom to turn to? Why, Max Headroom, of course, Carter's computer-generated alter ego. To penetrate the Blank's headquarters, Max is transformed into a "self-contained ROM construct with an isometric optical microlink." ... At last the TV image of Max confronts the leader of the Blanks in his electronic lair. But before they can cross disc drives, Max can't resist doing his Bogart. "Of all the computers in all the systems in all the world," he sighs, "I had to walk into yours."

That's our Max Headroom--always with the jokes. Yet who (or more precisely, what) could have better reason to yuck it up these days? At the venerable age of two, Max has it all: a smash cable-TV series seen in 20 countries, a spokesmachine contract with Coca-Cola reported to be worth $4 million, two best-selling books in Britian (one a self-help opus called "Max Headroom's Guide to Life") and a line of merchandise ranging from T-shirts (in some places, they outsell Madonna's) to cosmetics (for, naturally enough, "electronically oriented males"). Now the world's first computer-simulated megastar--actually, folks, he's just a talking head on a TV screen--has fashioned the final link in his legend. It's a weekly network series that is being hailed as one of the hippest, funniest and most innovative entertainments to pop into our culture. To quote the egocentric Max's least self-worshipful Maxism: "I'm an image whose time has come."

Actually, ABC's "Max Headroom" is, in every sense of the phrase, the television of tomorrow. That doesn't mean that the audience of today will get it or even like it. It's at once a slashing futuristic satire of the TV industry and a cornea-zapping demonstration of the medium's technological potential. But it's also, in a word, difficult. Figuratively speaking, the series sucks viewers inside the tube, showing us a chillingly surreal, all-video universe in which both humans and machines have blown their circuits. From above, thousands of satellites monitor all activity; below, omnipresent "securicams" keep close-up tabs on the entire populace. A few sinister conglomerates control the world's 4,000 channels; they are not above killing people in order to boost ratings. In this global "electrodemocracy" the citizenry is represented by the networks, who, in turn, select public officials through rigged "instant telelections."

Stylistically, "Max Headroom" might be described as a full sensory experience. While borrowing some of its atmospherics from recent cinema fantasies, the series manages to look like nothing ever designed for the small screen. Its grimy streetscapes, suffused with smoke and lit by garish neon, exude the eerie claustrophobia of Ridley Scott's "Blade Runner." Like Terry Gilliam's "Brazil," the show deliberately mixes up its periods, furnishing its high-tech interiors with circa 1930s antiques. All the cars are Studebakers. Extras sport punk hairdos and balinese sarongs. Policemen are costumed in armored breast plates and baseball caps. "Function doesn't follow form here," chuckles producer Brian Frankish. "We oppose function with form. In this show you can hold the camera upside down and be believable."

The series also calls to mind some of MTV's farthest-out videos like Peter Gabriel's "Sledgehammer," with its free-floating animations, and Prince's "Raspberry Beret," in which the singer seems to have been sliced and diced by a berserk computer. Yet, in effect, "Max Headroom" has carried the MTV revolution into another dimension. Indeed, a rock-video freak dialing from "Max" to MTV might conclude that the latter suddenly appears downright stodgy.

Perhaps that's because this series has fused its avant-garde pyrotechnics onto a genuine, and sustained, story line, then enriched the blend with whiz-bang pacing and slyly understated acting. The early ratings were mixed: millions of "Headroom" cultists gave the show respectable numbers for a highly experimental new series, yet it was equally clear that millions more literally tuned out with a kind of what-the-heck-is-this reaction. Still, even if the show fails to survive, bits and pieces of its ingenuity are virtually certain to filter into the rest of prime time.

Self-exposure: Yet "Max" may end up changing more than just how network television looks to viewers. This thoroughly subversive video parody could revise how network TV looks upon itself. "The deliciousness of the show," muses executive producer Peter Wagg, "is that a network is allowing us to show how the system works, how ratings are important, why Americans are given the same old material."

It seems no accident that this breakthrough comedy team is almost exclusively British. "American TV largely turns out predigested bunk, says "Max" writer Steve Roberts. "That's a guarantee of failure. But if someone twinkles TV's knobs, people will queue up to watch. 'Max' is challenging because it looks at the world in unorthodox ways. Europeans poke fun at their institutions as second nature, but that's not a habit here. You respect authority in a real way. You criticize and doubt it, but you don't mock it like Dickens and Monty Python."

Having been savvy enough to discern this cultural dissimilarity, Roberts and his coconspirators shrewdly packaged their mockery in the wrappings of a traditional scifi thriller. True, Max himself is not exactly the typical invention of your standard mad scientist. He came into being after Edison Carter (Canadian actor Matt Frewer), investigating a network plot to subliminally brainwash viewers, crashed his motorcycle through a parking-lot gate marked with the warning, "Max. Headroom 2.3m."

Somehow the network's teenage chief of research replicated the unconscious Edison's psyche on a computer drive. Thus was born Max Headroom (christened with the last words he remembered before blacking out.) He's a disembodied head with a slight stutter--the result of a glitch in his software--who lives only on a TV screen but has an uncanny ability to poke his image into anything, anytime, on the airwaves.

Yet if Max is a completely unique creation (call him the ultimate deus ex machina), he basically functions as just another superhero, a kind of robotic Clark Kent to root out evil at Network 23. There's even a Lois Lane on hand, a cooly beautiful computer controller named Theora Jones (British actress-model Amanda Pays. Of course "Superman" never knocked the comics the way this series trashed the medium that's bringing it home.

After delivering a pitch for one of Network 23's sponsors, Max ad-libs a mischievous postscript: "Ever wonder why Zik Zak burgers come in plastic packs? Some of the plastic rubs off on the burger and doubles the nutritional value." Last week Max led into a string of ABC commercials by informing viewers: "I just can't wa-wa-wait to see these (pause while his head slumped onto his shoulder). Wake me up when they're finished, will you?"

Obviously, this talking head has a mind of its own. But there's an irony here that Max would be the last to comprehend. For all his scoffing at the system, he is, in actuality, the quintessential product of his times--a pop icon designed and manufactured for the video generation with an almost scientific precision. Let's rewind his saga:

Begin playback in London, 1982: Peter Wagg, then a 33-year-old record-company executive, is putting together an MTV-style music-video series for Britian's trendy Channel 4. Since he hopes to market the show abroad, Wagg hits upon the notion of hosting it with a computerized creature who would appeal to techno-freaks of all nations. Wagg turns to George Stone, an advertising copywriter, and Rocky Morton and Annabelle Jankel, a pair of ingenious computer-graphic animators. Together the three hatch Max.

To play their creation's human template (Max is actually a flesh-and-blood actor whose image has been manipulated by electronic trickery), Wagg settles on Canada's Matt Frewer, who, with his blandly handsome visage and mid-Atlantic accent, seems ideally exportable. Frewer decides to model Max's personality after the smarmy, self-important goofiness of "The Mary Tyler Moore Show's" Ted Baxter. "I particularly wanted to get that phony bonhomie of Baxter," recalls the actor. "Max always assumes a decadelong friendship on the first meeting. At first sight he'll ask about that blackhead on your nose."

Wagg has forbidden Frewer to discuss precisely how he's transformed into Headroom for fear of diminishing Max's mystique. ("If we tell you how to do it from A to Z," says the actor, "anybody could make Max. Add one egg, oregano, and you have Headroom Alfonso.") Despite such understandable reticence, this much can be disclosed. During a two-hour makeup session, Frewer dons a latex mask, shocking-blue contact lenses, a yellow, rubberized wig and a fibre-glass suit. His image is then processed through a kind of computer-graphic Cuisinart that electronically alters his features. Max's jerky vocal inflections are the product of a voice synthesizer.

The series' first episode opens with Max introducing a weird German video with an equally-weird, fractured-German sentence. "Everybody was scared stiff, " recalls Wagg of the premiere. But within a month more than a million viewers are turning in, nearly doubling Channel 4's ratings for the time slot. To maximize his star's appeal, Wagg begins cutting back on the music and bringing on such celebrity guests as Boy George, Simon LeBon and Jack Lemmon. By the eighth episode, Max has made his first public appearance--opening a furniture store in Belfast. From then on, says Wagg, "he was unstoppable."

Fast-forward to the States: The Cinemax pay-cable service, which has helped finance Max's launch in Britian, unleashes his series on the American audience. By now Max's ego--inflated, no doubt, by his worshipful press reviews--is roughly the size of a satellite dish, while his attention span has shrunk to microsecond dimensions. In short, he's become the perfect talk-show host. His run on Cinemax is rife with indelicate moments: Max introducing hair stylist Vidal Sassoon as "V.D. Sassoon"; Max listening to Sting go on about his "art" and suddenly breaking into an exaggerated yawn; Max greeting Michael Caine by saying, "OK, Michael, fire away ... What have you always wanted to ask me?" The show instantly enraptures young viewers. Max, after all, speaks their language: computer literate, media-wise and gleefully disrespectful. In shopping malls and homerooms, the coolest kids suddenly discover a new way to convulse each other. They begn t-t-talking like th-th-this.

Insert new cassette, courtesy of Coke: The ever-ambitious Wagg realizes that he still needs something to give the "Maxhead" cult a mass spin. The Coca-Cola Co., meanwhile, is looking for a way to get the message about its New Coke to the teenagers they created it for. It's a marriage made in promotional heaven, the first real occasion in which a commercial spokesperson for a major corporation becomes a national celebrity as a result of his commercial performances.

Max's "C-C-Catch the wave" spots for Coke, two of which were directed by Ridley Scott, may be the most cleverly constructed pitches ever aimed at the under-30 viewer. In the most lavish, a massive assemblage of young "Cokeologists" gather in a cavernous hall and chant, Max, Max, Max!" as their hero appears on a giant video screen. The payoff for the company, according to Coca-Cola senior vice president John C. Reid, has been historic. "Max has broken almost every record for awareness of commercials," says Reid. "We did some consumer research and were startled to find out that 76 percent of all teenagers in this country had heard of Max after our first flight of ads."

Max even made it onto the cover of Mad Magazine, in a parody of a certain other newsweekly's Man of the Year issue.

Coke's next step is to tailor special Max commercials for black and Hispanic viewers, who make up two of the fastest-growing segments of the soft-drink market. One such shot shows pro-basketball superstar Michael Jordan using Max's screen image as a backboard for a spectacular slam-dunk. In another, Latin actress Lucia Mendez catches Max ogling her sizzling dance routine and plants a moist kiss smack on his monitor. As his latex tan turns crimson, Max sputters out, "Agarra la onda" (a loose Spanish translation of "Catch the wave"). So determined is Coke to hype the character into a household head that it has begun sending five-minute question-and-answer videos to local TV stations that want to "interview" Max. As the station's Robin Leach reads one of the questions from the script prepared by Coke, his electronic guest playfully leans forward to the bottom of the screen and exclaims, "Nice socks!"

Loss 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.

A High-Tech Heroine Heats Up the Screen

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