This is not a film. This is barely even a television show; a show based on an advertisement cannot really be considered art of the highest order. But Max Headroom certainly tries to do so. It is a show that calls to be examined, especially in this age. Replace every mention of “television station” with “internet” and you have a pretty accurate depiction of our world.
Yet the television show is maddening in some ways. It resorts to so many clichés and the production design can be charitably described as shoddy (and not so charitably described as ugly) that it sometimes masks the serious discussions that are present in the work. There will be many who dismiss it on those grounds; they may very well be correct in doing so. But others will admire the cyberpunk aesthetic and the fact that such a show even existed.
The plot: it’s 20 minutes into the future (as every opening assiduously reminds us) and takes place in a world where television networks run everything. Elections are held based upon which political candidate has the highest ratings, court proceedings are broadcast as game shows, and a sudden shut down of a network can have people in the streets, buying whatever bootleg videos they can find. A journalist named Edison Carter (Matt Frewer; he was Molloch in the film adaptation of Watchmen) is one of Network 23’s most popular journalists. During a controversial report, he ends up with a massive head injury and goes into a coma. Another employee named Bryce (Chris Young) recreates Carter’s mind on a computer, thus giving birth to the erratic Max. Carter eventually wakes up, and with Max, as well as his producer Murray (Jeffrey Tambor) and his new controller (Theora Jones..her character essentially tells him what to do and makes sure his broadcast is running smoothly)entries to find and expose the corruption of his own network as well as various other fringe groups.
Does this sound intriguing? Then I have described it incorrectly. Intrigue is something this film has a large amount of. I could describe the plot of each episode and come up with something great. The world of Max Headroom is actually very well described and maintained. Television Networks are supposed to rule the world, and they actually do. Edison Carter is shown as a well-known personality, while the computer equipment makes sense for the setting. Computers, after all, were not something that was widely used when the show was made. Therefore, showing what they can do as innovative but still showing television as the ultimate medium available to the public made perfect sense. In fact, if some of the earliest internet users had conquered the world, Max Headroom may very well be what the world would have looked like.
One of the problems with the show, ironically, is the character of Max Headroom. No one seems to figure out what to do with the little stuttering fool – at times he is a sort of voice of reason, at other times, he is like a vestigial organ, long past its usefulness. The characters do reference him as being a popular figure at Network 23; but I cannot recall a time in which we ever see it (unless the clips at the end are meant to be from a show he hosts). But overall, he is just a sort of presence writers were forced to acknowledge, even if they never figured out anything interesting for him to do.
This is essentially a television version of the classic Videodrome, minus the gore and with even more bizarre acting choices. At its worst, the show is a representation of the worst of Science Fiction, as a poverty row quickie. At its best, the show is a representation of the best of science fiction, showcasing numerous thought-provoking ideas and engaging in numerous cyberpunk discussions. It is obvious that the show is a cult classic. And you can count me in. It is a shame that it only lasted fourteen episodes. That does not make it bad; in fact, the show has sort of energy as though the creators knew that the show would not last and wanted to say as much as possible. Others would take on the show, including this little clip below.
How many brave souls would dare to try and do this based on a television show? Also, it matches up pretty well with the themes of the show; I kind of wish there was a game show to execute the perpetrator.