He may have been short-lived as a TV star, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an 80’s child who doesn’t recognize the angular mug of the man they called Max Headroom. The character was originally invented to host a music-video show on Channel Four in England, and a special pilot episode was aired to explain Max’s origin. The pilot was a big hit in the U.K., and the Max Headroom character was chosen by the Coca-Cola Company to be a spokesman for New Coke. Not the best of career moves, but Max came out of that famous fiasco pretty unscathed, earning himself an American series that ran in the spring and fall of 1987 on ABC.
The American Max Headroom featured actor Matt Frewer in a dual role. The first was Edison Carter, an investigative reporter who worked hard to uncover important news for ‘Network 23’. The second was the title character, a computer-generated entity that functioned as Edison’s synthetic doppelganger.
The setting was a noirish, Blade Runner-type future where television ruled everyone’s lives. Networks were under constant pressure from their advertiser owners to stay on top of the ratings. As a clever way out of this dilemma, Network 23 secretly plotted to create ‘blipverts,’ advertisements that were compressed into an ultra-short time span for maximum effectiveness. However, these blipverts had an unfortunate side effect: they would cause sedentary viewers to explode. Edison Carter stumbled onto the story but was injured in a motorcycle accident before he could report on what he had discovered.
While Carter struggled to recover, Network 23 research chief Bryce Lynch invented Max Headroom as an alter ego for Carter in an attempt to figure out the info trapped in Edison’s comatose mind. This imperfect creation suffered from jerky rhythms in its movements and speech, but it was as smart (and independent) as its human model. Max quickly became a “ghost in the machine,” popping up at will on televisions all over the city to make acidic commentary on his surroundings and the people in them.
Meanwhile, Edison recovered and returned to reporting. He was aided in his ongoing quest to uncover corruption by Theora Jones, his assistant, and Murray, the news producer for Network 23. Edison also had two important allies in the field: Blank Reg and Dominique, two rebels who ran a pirate television station. Ben Cheviot, the head of Network 23, rounded out the cast of characters after its first season, but the unforgettable character of Max Headroom was the one true 80’s icon.
The show is also fondly remembered by science-fiction fans for introducing the world to the lingo of cyberpunks with its frequent use of terms like ‘ice,’ ‘flatline’ and ‘nano-technology.’ In a trivia aside: although the Max Headroom character seemed convincingly computer-generated, this was not the case. Max was actually actor Matt Frewer wearing latex makeup, with some video-editing trickery lending him his herky-jerky mannerisms.
The cult audience dug Max Headroom, but unfortunately, the less cultish members of the TV nation were a bit puzzled. Ratings never took off, and network executives—perhaps a bit tired of their postmodern satirization—cancelled the show after less than a full season. Max never returned to network prime time, but Matt Frewer continued to portray the character on The Max Talking Headroom Show, a celebrity interview show made for Cinemax.
UK – USA / Channel 4 – ABC – Lorimar – Chrysalis – Lakeside / 1×70 minute episode 14×50 minute episodes / Broadcast 4 April 1985 and 31 March – 16 October 1987
UK One off: Writer: Steve Roberts / Music: Midge Ure, Chriss Cross / Executive Producer: Terry Ellis
US Series: Producers: Peter Wagg, Brian Frankish, Steve Roberts
MATT FREWER as Max Headroom
NICKOLAS GRACE as Grossman
HILARY TINDALL as Dominique
MORGAN SHEPHERD as Black Reg
AMANDA PAYS as Theora Jones
PAUL SPURRIER as Bruce Lynch
VAL McLANE as Eyewitness
Matt Frewer as Max Headroom
Matt Frewer as Edison Carter
Amanda Pays as Theora Jones
George Coe as Ben Cheviot
Chris Young as Bryce Lynch
William Morgan Sheppard as Blank Reg
Jeffrey Tambor as Murray
Sharon Barr as Lauren
Jere Burns as Breugel
Rick Ducommun as Mahler
Hank Garrett as Gene Ashwell
Charles Rocket as Ned Grossberg
Concetta Tomei as Dominique