Thursday, August 12, 2010

Culture Shock 08.12.10: The future finally arrives for ahead-of-its-time show 'Max Headroom'

The future has finally caught up with "Max Headroom."

When it aired on ABC in 1987, it was ahead of its time — and ahead of most viewers. It was a critical darling, but a ratings disaster after ABC shifted it to the Friday-night death slot opposite "Dallas" and "Miami Vice." So, after just 14 episodes, ABC canceled it.

Yet if "Max Headroom" aired today, it would probably be a huge hit. It would go on for five or six seasons, have a complex and increasingly convoluted story arc, and just end up disappointing everyone with an unsatisfying series finale that resolves none of its major mysteries.

You know, maybe it's a good thing "Max Headroom" aired when it did. There are worse things to be than brilliant but canceled.

So, for those of you too young to remember 1987, who don't know how brilliant "Max Headroom" truly is, there's good news. All 14 episodes are now on DVD as "Max Headroom: The Complete Series."

An ambitious mix of "Blade Runner," Terry Gilliam's "Brazil" and what would later be known as "cyberpunk," "Max Headroom" is science fiction that confronts — head on, shall we say — the impact of technology and the media on everything from privacy and politics to religion and medicine.

Canadian actor Matt Frewer ("Watchmen") stars as Edison Carter, an investigative journalist for Network 23, the most watched and most powerful media outlet in a dystopian world set "20 minutes into the future" — or about 2004, actually — where all real power rests with the media.

In its never-ending battle for ratings dominance, Network 23 has a secret weapon: an unpredictable, anarchistic, computer-generated talking head created from Carter's memories — Max Headroom.

While Carter uncovers political and corporate wrongdoing, often involving his employer or its main advertiser, the nefarious Zik Zak corporation, Max has free rein to pop up whenever and wherever he chooses, both on Network 23's airwaves and inside its computer network.

Occasionally, Max stumbles upon information that helps Carter's investigations. And sometimes he even remembers to share it. For Carter, dealing with Max is like dealing with his inner child — a spoiled-rotten inner child who could probably do with a good spanking.

The show's creators intended "Max Headroom," in part, as a warning about the direction in which they saw society and the media moving.

For better or worse, some of their predictions have panned out, from e-mail to reality television.

Another purpose was to point out that the media often has an agenda of its own, which was always true, but not nearly so obvious before Fox News and MSNBC came along.

"Max Headroom" was subversive for its time, when three stodgy broadcast networks and PBS were the beginning, middle and end of the TV universe. But that doesn't mean it got everything right, and some of its predictions and warnings seem pretty silly today.

For example, Zik Zak is a Japanese-owned corporation run by stereotypical — and borderline offensive — Japanese bosses who speak loudly in broken English. Zik Zak represents 1980s paranoia about the Japanese "buying up" America, a non-threat at the time, and a ridiculous one in light of Japan's "lost decade" of economic stagnation.

On a larger level, "Max Headroom" overestimates the power of television, portraying it as an uncontrollable force that comes at you, whether you want it to or not. In "Max Headroom," TVs don't even have off switches; all you can do is change the channel. Television is top-down, authoritarian and inescapable.

In reality, in our world of 2010, we've never had more control over TV. We watch what we want, when we want, how we want. Between TiVo, Hulu, Netflix and on-demand, broadcasters have lost control. In effect, you can program your own network and, if you want, even avoid the commercials.

But even when it's wrong, "Max Headroom" is interesting. And science fiction always has more to do with its own time than any imagined future.

"Max Headroom" is a time capsule of a decade when we worried about all the wrong things.

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