Those of us who remember the stuttering, digitally distorted AI character known as Max Headroom, who was everywhere for a while in the mid-1980s, might have been skeptical when we heard a TV series was coming. But “Max Headroom” which aired on ABC from 1987-1988, turned out to be a surprisingly good show. It didn’t do well enough to last more than 14 episodes - in part because it aired on Friday nights opposite “Dallas” and “Miami Vice” for at least part of its run. “Max Headroom,” with its dystopian future and focus on social issues, was the first “cyberpunk” show. Wikipedia says that the show wasn’t labeled as such until after it was cancelled, but fans already knew this.
It is worth noting that one of the main social issues “Max Headroom” tackled was the power and pervasiveness of mass media. Network 23 was one of the major players, and the series postulated a future with 500 channels available to TV watchers, as well as reality television. The first episode, "Blipverts," was about the network going to far in trying to sell products using subliminal messaging. In this way, the satirical "Max Headroom" was a bit ahead of its time. And, because of its prescience, the show is surprisingly relevant today, even if parts of it are dated thanks to no Internet, and a yellow peril motif.
The character Max Headroom was invented in 1984 as a British TV personality. Although he was supposed to be a digital entity, he was actually an actor, Matt Frewer, wearing prosthetics and makeup. He made his debut in a 1985 British TV pilot called "Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future," and became even more popular after he got a gig as a veejay for a music video show called "The Max Headroom Show." He also starred in ads for New Coke, and these appearances led to additional popularity across the pond in the U.S.
Cinemax showed the British pilot and installments of "The Max Headroom Show" to American audiences, leading to interest from ABC. Thus, the television series was produced by a British company for American audiences - a fact which many Americans did not know. "Max Headroom" aired as a midseason replacement in 1987.
The show focused on Edison Carter, basically a television journalist, who works for Network 23. In this future, television ratings rule all and there’s pretty much no limit to what some TV network executives will do to secure those ratings. All investigative reporters are connected wirelessly to a human controller who is able to smooth obstacles from them by seeing what they see and assisting them in real-time. Edison’s controller is Theora Jones.
The pilot established that Max Headroom was created because Edison, while investigating the deadly advertisements called "blipverts," was near death. One of his bosses at Network 23 wanted to find out how much he knew and create a controllable version of his star reporter. Thus Max was born.
In many episodes, Edison found himself at odds with the executives at Network 23, his home network. One recurring villain was Ned Grossberg (Charles Rocket), who started out as Network 23’s CEO and then went on to lead Network 66.
This is a society in which it’s illegal to turn televisions off - there’s a lot of injustice in a world like that. But in addition to Theora, Edison has several allies, including Murray (Jeffrey Tambor), his producer, Bryce (Chris Young), Blank Reg (an undocumented owner of Big Time Television played by W. Morgan Sheppard), and a computer creation based on his own memories, Max Headroom.
Edison Carter (Matt Frewer): Our main protagonist, an investigative journalist employed by Network 23. He’s a bit too good at finding out the truth sometimes, but he’ll do anything for his coworkers and for the cause of truth.
Max Headroom (Matt Frewer): Edison’s alter ego, a wise-cracking, glitching, stuttering, slightly unhinged computer simulation created from Edison’s memories. Max is the work of the genius hacker, Bryce, and gets his name from the “Max. Headroom” sign that was one of the last things Edison Carter saw before getting knocked out in an attempt on his life.
Theora Jones (Amanda Pays): Brought in during the first episode as Edison’s replacement controller, Theora’s skill in the digital world of Max Headroom was integral to Edison’s success. Her relationship with Edison sometimes seemed as it might veer into the romantic, but that never actually happened within the run of the series.
Bryce Jones (Chris Young): Genius hacker Bryce is actually the creator of Max Headroom, ordered by evil CEO Ned Grossberg to get Edison’s memories. Although, like many hacker characters from other movies and TV shows, Bryce is a bit unprincipled and obsessed, he also proved to be a friend and supporter of Edison’s.
Blank Reg (W. Morgan Sheppard): The renegade owner and operator of pirate television station Big Time Television, this Mohawked man is a friend and source of Edison’s, saving his butt on more than one occasion.
Murray McKenzie (Jeffrey Tambor): Edison’s boss is constantly harried, forced to act as a go-between with Edison and the big bosses at Network 23. But his heart is in the right place.
Other characters included Dominique (Conchetta Tomei), Blank Reg's partner; Ben Cheviot (George Coe), the head of Network 23 who tends to support Edison’s endeavors; and Ned Grossberg, the CEO of Network 23 in the beginning who becomes a recurring villain.
"Max Headroom" aired for two seasons, with six episodes in season one and eight episodes in season two. The episodes in season two had a long gap between them - six aired in September and October of 1987 and two aired in April and May of 1988. The 14th episode was never aired in the U.S.
"Blipverts" (Pilot Episode - March 31, 1987): Edison discovers that a new form of advertising is overloading people’s nervous system, causing them to explode. As he tries to uncover the story, an attempt on his life is made and is nearly successful. Network 23 president Ned Grossberg, who has a stake in putting blipverts on the air, orders hacker Bryce to find out how much Carter knows, resulting in the creation of an AI called Max Headroom.
"Body Banks" (April 14, 1987): A woman is kidnapped by body-snatchers so she can involuntarily donate an organ. Her boyfriend takes Theora hostage, hoping to motivate Edison to cover the story and find the ones responsible. Meanwhile, the Zik-Zak Corporation, best known for its blipverts, wants Network 23 to get Max Headroom to hawk its products, which the uncontrollable Max finally does, in a sarcastic and not-very-flattering way for Zik-Zak. Max has gaps in his memory, and he wants Edison to help fill them.
"Dieties" (September 25, 1987) - In this episode, Edison is supposed to investigate the Vu-Age Church and its claims that it is saving and storing the minds of its parishioners, but he’s strangely reticent. Murray soon learns that the leader of this church is Vanna Smith, an ex-girlfriend of Edison’s. Turns out that Vanna wants Max Headroom to help her fulfill the promises she’s made to her followers.