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Max Headroom: The Complete Series (DVD Review)

6 Aug, 2010 By: John Latchem

Street 8/10/10
Shout! Factory/Vivendi
Sci-Fi, $49.97 five-DVD set
Not rated.
Stars Matt Frewer, Amanda Pays, W. Morgan Sheppard, Jeffrey Tambor.

According to co-creator George Stone, “Max Headroom is every talking head you ever saw. Max Headroom is every televangelist, every sports reporter, every news reporter. He is an amalgam of them all.”

The 1980s pop-culture icon was born from an idea to create a host for a British music video show and became more elaborate as its creators began working on a backstory. This led to the hour-long British TV special 20 Minutes Into the Future in 1985, followed by a Cinemax talk show, a few commercials for New Coke, and eventually the 1987-88 American TV series that was based on the original British presentation.

Ironically, the series isn’t as so much about Max as it is about Max’s human alter ego, an investigative TV reporter named Edison Carter, played by Matt Frewer. Set in a near future so dystopian it invokes more than one reference to Blade Runner and Brazil, the series focuses on Carter’s attempts to expose the truth in the face of corporate conspiracies, while evil television network executives meet in dark conference rooms, sit in ornate chairs and plot like Bond villains to maintain their empire.

This sets up a biting satire on the state of mass-market media consumption, depicting a future in which television is so ubiquitous that even the homeless have an abundance of TV sets in their slums, making a statement about how people become so reliant on what’s being fed to them that they forget to question whether or not it’s in their best interest.

In the pilot, Carter stumbles upon a subliminal advertising campaign that kills a few viewers, thus motivating his corporate bosses to create a digital doppelganger of his mind so they can find out what he knows. The wise-cracking avatar turns out to have a mind of its own, escapes from the corporate mainframe and begins to appear on TV monitors worldwide, acting more like a digital sidekick who occasionally pops up to comment on whatever’s going on or insert himself into the plot when needed.

Assisting Carter is a computer operator played by Amanda Pays, who followed “Max Headroom” with a similar role in the short lived “The Flash” superhero series and may be best known for being married to “L.A. Law” star Corbin Bernsen.

The production values are unmistakably 1980s, but the series was ahead of the time for its day, presaging such cultural conceits as social media, e-mail and extreme sports to such a degree that a few of the show’s writers yearn for a remake to take advantage of how much the show’s core themes still resonate today.

Executive producer Peter Wagg laments the show was never going to be a hit simply because the producers didn’t want to compromise their vision to appeal to a broader audience. It was so expensive to produce to came as no surprise ABC canceled the show after only 13 episodes (with a 14th that wouldn’t air until years later) for averaging “only” 12 million viewers (a rating that would make it a certified hit today).

The set includes all 14 episodes on four discs and a bonus disc with 140 minutes of extras that consist entirely of retrospective interviews with the cast and crew. The centerpiece is an hour-long program about the making of the show, which reveals the Max effect was in fact not a CGI creation but Frewer in makeup and a plastic suit.

This program seems to be as much about the making of the original TV special as it is the series, which creates an obvious hole in the extras in that 20 Minutes Into the Future isn’t included with the set (apparently rights issues kept Shout! from including it). Some of the people who created Max even complain that they weren’t brought over to work on the TV show.

Almost as interesting is a roundtable discussion with a few members of the cast, though it’s too bad Frewer didn’t make himself available for an interview, as his perspective would have been a valuable addition. There are also featurettes spotlighting the show’s use of technology and the writing and production processes.

Though the interview segments could use a few more cutaways to production photos or show clips to illustrate what the subjects are discussing, the bulk of the material is very insightful and should prove very interesting to fans of the show and the genre.

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