future perfect

moon colonyTo hold, as ’twere, the mirror up to nature.”

When it comes to the future, we are decidedly of two minds.  On the one hand, we believe the future will be better than now.  There will be no hunger or disease or environmental meltdown, we will conquer our war-like nature, and we will spread goodwill and tolerance throughout the galaxy.   Nothing will faze us and all the aliens will be sexy.  On the other hand, we are equally sure that things will go to hell in a handbasket.  War and poverty and overpopulation will cripple civilization.  Humanity will cling to existence either in blasted, post apocalyptic landscapes or in crowded, sprawling cities, their resources rapidly dwindling, plagued with hungry zombies, hostile aliens, brutal gangs, and/or Orwellian governments.  The prognosis will be bleak but the clothes will be fabulous.

The world of Max Headroom trends toward the latter scenario. Although the main characters are more or less part of the upper socioeconomic strata, the culture itself is bordering on anarchy.   Nearly every important part of a functional civic society is run by and for the television networks, including government, the schools, the courts, and the police.   The only businesses that matter are the networks and their sponsors and affiliates, and other than obviously off-the-grid street merchants these are pretty much the only businesses you see in the show.  Even within the newsroom of Network 23, the preeminent network on earth, everything seems cobbled together from spare parts, crowded together as if space were at a premium, and grungy.  Nothing is sleek or shiny or new.  Outside the boardrooms of Channel 23 and its main sponsor, the Zik-Zak Corporation, large swathes of the population live in poverty in areas called the Fringes where it always appears to be dark.   Everyone, everyone, has a television.  They are always on because, well, it’s illegal to turn them off.

Max Headroom was the first of only a handful of cyberpunk-influenced television shows.  Its aesthetic is heavily informed by Road Warrior, 80’s punk fashion, and a bleak outlook on human nature.  It manages to feel both dated and oddly current, perhaps because so much of it seems familiar and so much that it imagined  would  happen “20 minutes into the future” actually came to pass in some form or other.   When it first appeared on TV in 1987, it was lauded as a hardheaded futuristic exploration of the growing influence of television in people’s lives, but in its brief life it looked beyond the tube to extrapolate the logical outcomes of all sorts of other looming angst-inducing trends.  So, in Max’s world, there is a thriving and only barely legal market in human body parts, Japan is the world’s financial master, the government gives televisions rather than welfare to the needy, books are banned and possessing a printing press is a crime, trials are conducted on air with the viewing audience as the jury, blood sports are shown on live TV, people grow their children in labs, the outcomes of political elections are determined by network ratings wars, and sponsors are not above killing a few of their customers if it means the vast majority of them do not change the channel when a commercial comes on.

It perhaps isn’t fair to hold a 25 year old television show up to a harsh standard, but even if I did, I’d still be impressed by how much of Max’s future is now.    China was still an agrarian backwater in 1985, but they certainly got the part about Asia becoming an economic powerhouse right.  Computers aren’t as ubiquitous as they turned out to be but there is an internet (called The System) and it is pervasive.  Theora routinely uses it via satellite uplink to commandeer security cameras, access corporate floor plans, and hack into Network 23’s internal documents and personnel files.   The fact that the computers seem cobbled together from manual typewriters and old television sets just adds to the cyberpunk cred (and maybe a little bit of  steampunk cred as well).  Computer geniuses are all teenagers (almost entirely true in 1987) and hacking and corporate cyberespionage are routine.  Everybody has televisions and they are on all the time, even out in the Fringes, where people huddle around trashcan fires and watch vapid game shows.  Only people who can afford an education get one; 20 minutes into the future this is extended even to grade school.  Most people have never seen a book.  Both criminal and civil trials are conducted on live TV and the audience decides guilt or innocence via an applause meter, a not terribly unrealistic prediction (People’s Court debuted in 1981).   Terrorists make movies of themselves and sell them to TV stations.   News is entertainment and most TV seems to be some version of reality TV.  The police serve the corporations.  Televangelists are how most people experience spirituality.  No one carries cell phones but Edison’s TV camera doubles as both a communications device and a GPS tracker and although people pick up hand receivers when they answer the phone, every phone call is a video call (sort of an early version of Skype, since the phone system seems to work over the internet).  Maybe in a hundred years this will all seem quaint, but a quarter century has gone by and right now it seems eerily prescient.

The series is not made entirely from awesome.  Although the show drips cynicism it is heavily dependent on happy endings, some of which seem as if the happy ending wasn’t where the plot initially led.  The special effects are primitive, although this rather enhances the atmosphere of the low-rent future envisioned in the show.  Bryce’s state-of-the-art computer science lab barely looks capable of playing Space Invaders; it’s hard to envision him creating a functional AI with it (a running joke in the show is his struggles with his AI parrot which also has a bad attitude).  Max himself isn’t really computer-generated; he’s an actor (Frewer) wearing prostheses in front of a blue screen.  For those of us used to ginormous hi-def video screens the green-and-black computer monitors evoke a sort of dim nostalgia.  Everyone has TV but the TVs are really small and still tube-based.   There is a plethora of 80’s big hair and shoulder pads.

There are only two characters with any nuance.  The first is Ben Cheviot, the chairman of Network 23’s Board of Directors.  He is a basically decent man who very often finds himself having to choose between doing the right thing and pleasing Zik-Zak.  The second is Bryce Lynch, Network 23’s teenage computer genius.  Bryce has lived his entire life in the rarified world of algorithms; he lacks both social skills and a functional awareness of wrong and right.  In the British original he was straight up bad but in the American version he is basically good, if occasionally a bit confused.   Everyone else is a cartoon, either wholly heroic (Edison, Theora, newsroom boss Murray, etc.) or lick-lipping, twitchily evil (Ned Grossberg, the creep of the week).   The show apparently didn’t have much of a budget; there are few recognizable actors involved with it apart from the leads.  (A young Bill Maher does a turn in “Whackets” as the developer of a highly addictive subliminal advertisement.  His characters says things like “This proves we can make them watch any show,” and “The system works. We sell out, we blow, and let the buyer beware,” which come to think of it, pretty much describes his entire career.)

Max himself is surprisingly out of the picture most of the time and the show suffers for it.  In the British telefilm, Max and Edison never meet and Max ends up as rogue VJ on Big Time TV, actually the perfect place for him to poke at the  beast with a big sarcasm stick.  In the American version he stays with Network 23 working with Edison and Theora (and serving as a sort of big brother to Bryce) and when his iconoclastic and irreverent hijacking of air time proves irresistible to viewers he is allowed free rein, a privilege which he uses mostly to snark merrily at the network, its sponsor, and even its viewers.  As we are told frequently, Max is an imperfect copy of Edison Carter; he has almost no checks on his considerable ego but he has all of Edison’s memories and intelligence.  So he’s a cheeky bastard, able to say almost anything he wants and get away with it so long as the ratings stay high, and there is far too little of him in the show.  He’s relegated to the commercial break lead-ins and the occasional fly-by witticism, but other than a handful of  times when he is important to the plot, his own show really isn’t about him.

The essential and central irony of Max Headroom is  that in order to survive on network television in America in the mid-1980s it needed to get both the critical acclaim and the ratings necessary to keep the sponsors and the network happy.  It played opposite two of the most vapid and useless television shows ever created, both of which were immensely popular and both of which allowed viewers to wallow vicariously in the life styles of the rich and shameless.  I guess it beat staring numbly at their own bleak future huddled around flaming garbage cans out in the Fringes.   The critical acclaim was there but the ratings weren’t and ABC pulled the plug halfway through its second season.  There weren’t enough shows for the eternal afterlife of reruns and so Max disappeared.  He made a brief reappearance when the series was re-run on Bravo and the Sci-Fi channel a decade later.  The series was never released on VHS, although you could get the British telefilm and the Cinemax version on video.  There were convoluted issues with ownership of the rights to both versions of the show that prevented their re-release on new media, which may explain why the recently released DVD set is devoid of even excerpts of the British telefilm and music video show.  Their absence is keenly felt but in general the DVD set is very nicely done and well worth the quarter century wait.

As a television show, Max Headroom is smart in all the right ways.  It’s a pity ABC didn’t have Ben Cheviot’s cojones when it came to Max; Cheviot quite clearly enjoys the discomfort Max’s bracing honesty causes his masters and he keeps both Max and Edison on the air precisely because they serve to balance the rest of the drivel that Network 23 broadcasts.  They keep the network honest.  But in the real world it benefits no one except a few grumpy hermits like me to have a TV show that mocks everything about television and the culture it produces.  “Edgy” and “ironic” just scare away the sponsors.   In the end most people are content to watch crap and so crap is what the producers make and crap is what the advertisers advertise.  Everyone wins.  They don’t call it the boob tube for nothing.

Score:  w00t!!

[author’s note:  Although I remember a surprising amount of information about Max Headroom I am indebted to both The Max Headroom Chronicles and TV Tropes for providing me with those niggling details that I misplaced somewhere during the last 25 years.]

~ by gun street girl on September 27, 2010.

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