max headroom–the future is now

For awhile there in the 80s, you could not get away from Max Headroom, an animated talking head created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel, and Rocky Morton and sold as the first computer-generated artificial intelligence. Max, portrayed and voiced by a then-unknown actor named Matt Frewer, became a cultural phenomenon, going viral in a way unprecedented in the pre-Internet age. His image and his stuttering delivery of one-liners made him one of the most instantly recognizable icons of the era.

Max segued from doing interstitials on a music video show to being an uber-pitchman and finally, he got his own television movie in England, a pilot called “Twenty minutes into the future.” The show was then retooled for American television and premiered on ABC in 1987.

The show was set in the kind of dystopian world familiar to readers of modern YA fiction; a world run and ruled by television networks where technology is omnipresent and often sinister and ratings wars were deadly.

Stories revolved around crusading reporter Edison Carter (Frewer) and his digital doppelganger Max, created when young genius Bryce Lynch rebooted Carter’s consciousness inside a computer in the aftermath of an accident that left the reporter in a coma. (The last thing Carter saw before blacking out was a barrier that said “max. headroom.”)

Max Headroom was a cult hit for the network but couldn’t get traction against its competition (Dallas on CBS; Miami Vice on NBC) and it only ran for 14 episodes. The series was unavailable for years, although several episodes eventually showed up on YouTube.

Last August, a dvd (with extras) finally appeared. It’s not cheap, but it’s filled with the kind of behind-the-scenes goodies fans love.

What stands out when watching the show again is how much it’s held up. The trenchant observations on media and celebrity culture feel even more relevant today than they did 20-some years ago.

The look of the show is contemporary as well. Sure some of the computer stuff is a little old school, but everything from the low-rez bits on the credit sequences to the timeless wardrobe would look perfectly fine on a show produced today. Not many shows from the 80s can say that. (Or even the 90s. Check out those massive mobile phones in any Friends rerun.)

The writing on Max Headroom was sharp and smart and the stories often took aim at sacred cows. The characters, too, made an impact.

Frewer was only 29 when he hit the small screen in the dual roles of Edison Carter and Max Headroom. The show was a big break for the stage-trained actor whose previous roles had been mostly nameless parts like “Soldier #2 in Spies Like Us; “American in Bar” in Tender is the Night; and “Senior” in Lords of Discipline. He had a kind of Paul Bettany thing going on and a wiseass swagger that was exaggerated in Max’s cheerfully cheeky, anarchic presence. (One of the extras on the dvd goes into detail about how Frewer was transformed into Max in the days before motion-capture.) Since Max Headroom, Frewer’s been ubiquitous on both American and Canadian television as well as alternating comic and dramatic parts in features. He was unforgettable as “Trashman” in the television miniseries based on Stephen King’s The Stand and will be appearing in an adaptation of King’s Bag of Bones next year.

British actress Amanda Pays played Theora Jones, the woman calling the technical shots at Channel 23. She’d done a number of television guest shots before Max Headroom, including the role of “Sarah” in the star-studded miniseries A.D. but her turn as sexy/smart Theora made her a geek goddess. The writers always hinted at a future hookup between her character and Carter but their sexual chemistry was never really acted on.

The supporting cast included Jeffrey Tambor (as Carter’s producer, a bundle of neuroses and nerves); W. Morgan Sheppard (as “Blank Reg,” an off-the-grid pirate television broadcaster), and Chris Young as Bryce, a mercenary teenage hacker.

Chris Young, now a director as well as an actor, had a baby Bill Gates sort of look that was probably not accidental. Bryce was a great character, and Young played him with intelligence and style.

In fact, if you had to describe Max Headroom in one word, it would be, “intelligent.”

If you’ve never seen the series, check out the pilot on YouTube. If you like what you see, buy the dvd.

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