Max Headroom: S1E1, “Blipverts”

Original Air Date: March 31, 1987

[Max Headroom is only available on DVD.]

“You’re looking at the future, Mr. Grossberg. People translated as data.” –Bryce Lynch.

In late 1986, a British television production company began work on a science fiction series for ABC. Based on a pilot produced for Britain’s Channel 4, the series took a decidedly dim view of current social, economic, and technological trends, and postulated that in the near future, we might be living through a troubled dystopia rather than “Morning In America.”

Dystopias come in many flavors, from the biological vats of Brave New World to the book-burning firemen of Fahrenheit 451. In Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, the social order has collapsed; in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, it has stiffened into hyper-fascistic rigidity. Often, the majority are condemned to servitude and poverty to benefit a ruling class, as in The Hunger Games; rarely, the peace and prosperity of the society is ensured by the suffering of a few, as in Ursula LeGuin’s “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas.”

If there’s one thing almost every dystopia has in common, it’s the idea that the social contract between the weak and the powerful has been suspended or abolished. As such, there are certain people that it is permissible to treat like garbage. The central conflict of most dystopian fiction involves a hero rebelling against this conceit, and in Max Headroom, our hero is crusading journalist Edison Carter (Matt Frewer), whose prickly arrogance serves as armor for the compassion and humanism that often gets him into more trouble than he can handle alone.

Luckily for Carter, he’s not alone. In our pilot episode we’re introduced to his producer, Murray McKenzie (Jeffrey Tambor, just 43 years old and looking very trim here) who runs interference for his star journalist with the Powers That Be, and supplies him with both lavish creature comforts and — after a botched evacuation from the site of a piece of breaking news leads Edison into a scuffle with some Metro Police — a gifted new Controller, Theora Jones (Amanda Pays).

The job of a Controller is not an easy one — at any time they may have to wear the hat of a segment producer, a research assistant, a switchboard operator or a hacker. It’s in this last capacity that Edison decides to put Ms. Jones through her paces; he knows that his story was spiked by their employer, the mighty Network 23, and now he wants to know why.

If you’re familiar with dystopian fiction, you already know why — the network has done something bad, and if Edison uncovers the truth, they’ll have to answer for it. It seems that a new form of TV commercial has been developed by Network 23’s programming wunderkind, Bryce Lynch (Chris Young) to solve the problem of viewers switching channels during commercial breaks. Instead of 30 seconds, Bryce’s compressed “blipverts” take only 3 seconds to deliver the same information. Less channel-switching equals more ratings equals happier advertisers equals more profits — everybody wins!

…Except the poor guy pictured above. In a certain small percentage of particularly unhealthy, inactive, sedentary viewers, exposure to blipverts has the unfortunate side effect of causing them to explode like a gerbil in a microwave, right there in front of their television. Bryce discovered this during a random sampling of security footage and made a “rebus tape” to show to 23’s Board of Directors. The board is uncertain of how to respond to this information. On the one hand, advertising that kills people is probably unethical and certainly very bad public relations, a viewpoint expressed most forcefully by Director Ben Cheviot (George Coe). But on the other hand, money! Money money money, ratings, money.

This argument is made by several members of the board, and eventually convinces the young, oily CEO Ned Grossberg (Charles Rocket, Saturday Night Live alumnus and famous “that guy” of the mid-to-late 1980s). A particularly odious board member, catering to Grossberg’s bottom-line mentality, points out that even their brief hiatus from blipverts while the investigation is going on has impacted both their relationship with the Zik-Zak Corporation, a major sponsor, and the network’s overall ratings position. Cheviot is bothered by all this talk of ratings from the chairman. “You should be talking [about] people!” he objects. “What’s the difference?” sneers a board member.

Back up in the newsroom, Theora has hacked her way into the executive washroom’s security camera (!), and overheard an earlier conversation between Grossberg and Cheviot that both fingers the board as responsible for spiking Edison’s story and alludes to the existence of the rebus tape, which the ace journalists correctly deduce is visual proof of what happened. So Carter is off and running, breaking into Bryce’s workshop with Theora’s help, filching the tape after his camera connection is mysteriously interrupted, and dashing into the night.

Sadly, he only gets as far as the parking garage. Bryce Lynch is actively trying to prevent Edison’s escape, and gets into a fun little hacker’s duel with Theora Jones as the two wrestle for control of the building’s elevators, a barrier arm, and finally (and tragically) the parking spikes, which hurl Edison off his stolen bike and into a serious head injury. Captured by Network 23 security, Edison’s carted back into Bryce’s lair while Bryce awaits orders from Ned Grossberg.

Grossberg is in a bind: he unhesitatingly ordered the murder and disposal of Edison’s original Controller, the luckless Ned Gorrister (apparently Theora isn’t finished with her HR paperwork yet) on the off chance that he knows too much. But he doesn’t want to sacrifice a major network asset like Edison Carter if he doesn’t have to — since this is a TV show and Carter hit his head, maybe he has amnesia and everything will be OK. Bryce offers to help by scanning the contents of Carter’s mind with a new piece of software he’s developed; they can ask the resulting construct what it knows, and if they get the wrong answer, well, R.I.P. Edison.

Naturally, this construct is the inimitable, irreverent, and often infuriating Max Headroom (who selects his name from one of the last things Edison Carter saw — the parking garage arm that sent him sleepy-bye). After a few minutes of struggling with the digital imp, Grossberg decides that safe is better than sorry and tries to pull the plug on both Max and Edison. Grossberg’s off-the-books heavies are Brueghel (Jere Burns) and Mahler (Rick Ducommon), who dress like extras from a Guns ‘N Roses video and drive a van that sounds like an iron lung sampled by a Casiotone SK-1. That takes care of Edison, but Max proves too slippery for Bryce Lynch and escapes into the Network 23 mainframe.

Yet all is not lost. Theora Jones is still on the case, and manages to track Edison’s wayward corpus down — still alive — at a local “body bank” run by an extremely creepy Billie Bird, and is able to get him released by the extraordinary measure of, well, paying for the privilege. A good night’s sleep in Theora’s gigantic, plush-animal-strewn bed is apparently all the medical attention Edison requires, and after rejoining Bryce and being introduced to Max Headroom (who does indeed have the rebus tape on tap) he springs a nasty surprise on Ned Grossberg, arriving in the middle of the press conference called to announce the unfortunate death of one Edison Carter and pressing him for answers on the blipvert problem, as seen in these disgusting images, Max can you cue those up? Thanks.

That about does it for Chairman Grossberg, who’s developed a nervous neck-twitching tic that makes him look a little too coked-up to be in charge of a major TV network anyway. Our last glimpse of the Network 23 boardroom shows Ben Cheviot smiling to himself as he sits down in the CEO’s chair, though the question of whether he’s pleased that his more conservative play has put him in the top job or that a shred of human decency has prevailed is, for now, left open.

Stray observations:

  • Theora helps Edison track down the rebus tape in Bryce’s workshop by correctly deducing that teenagers are slobs. “I know all about teenaged boys,” she brags. “I’ll bet you do,” Edison smirks.
  • Network 23’s audience ranges from a low of 115 million viewers to a high of 236 million. Take that, CBS!
  • The “body bank” seems to exist in a kind of grey-market area. A future where living people can be sold for parts just because they happen to be unconscious has a lot of ‘splaining to do, but on the other hand, they’re in the phone book.
  • Correct prediction of the week: security cameras are everywhere and nobody notices.
  • The set designer for the show seems to have taken some obvious cues from Brazil. 20 minutes into the future, everything is cluttered, dingy, and a bit retro; even the high technology has a kludgy, Rube Goldberg quality that would force a screaming Steve Jobs to awaken in a cold sweat every night.
  • Incorrect prediction of the week: the computer mouse was never invented.

16 thoughts on “Max Headroom: S1E1, “Blipverts”

  1. Great review! I had totally forgotten what had caused Max to exist. I wish I could watch these along with you, but alas, I don’t have the DVDs. There are bits on YouTube but not enough to follow along, I think. So I will rely on you to bring it all back! 🙂

  2. I also wonder if the more dystopian view (as opposed to Morning in America) was *because* the pilot was British (they didn’t have that “morning” sense that we did at that time, and ymmv on how real that “morning” stuff was for us, anyhow.)

    • At least in this first episode, the Britishness shows. Nobody has a gun, not even the police; a line in the script refers to “pensioners” rather than “retirees”; and when Brueghel asks Mahler whether Edison is still alive, he gets the response, “He’s a bit alive.” But only Frewer, Amanda Pays, and Blank Reg (whom we will meet later) were held over from the original pilot.

  3. Funnily enough, the mouse was around by 1987, but I guess the clicking and clacking of the keyboard was probably considered more cinematic. Here’s a video from the early 80s about the mouse (which had already been invented in the 60s, even if it wasn’t common).

    Cool review. I look forward to takes on future episodes.

    I liked the show a lot. I kind of thought Edison was a little too self-righteous, so it was cool when he did get knocked down a peg. Bryce is a really cool character for his ambiguity and his relationship with Edison. Murray, Theora, Cheviot, Blank Reg, all really cool too. Cheviot is another one that’s pretty ambiguous, a bit like Skinner on The X-Files.

    You can kind of tell by the episode titles, and their subject matter, that what the show managed to get done were shows that were all about building this world. It’s a shame it got cancelled before it got to play in that world it was building.

    • Even in today’s films and TV, serious hacker stuff almost always uses a keyboard. Either the clackety-clack is more dramatic, or the audience (rightly) assumes that tasks that require you to actually insert lines of code are a bit more sophisticated than merely clicking around. But Theora navigating a cute little ray-traced map of various Network 23 systems with nothing more than keyboard controls looks appallingly cumbersome — despite my own rather old-school UI preferences, I was dying on her behalf. 🙂

      • The mouse was totally coming at that point, but no, wasn’t common yet. I remember how hard it was to adjust to one on the school’s Mac at around this time… spring of ’86, I think it was.

        “What the Dormouse Said”‘is a good history about Bay-area computer enthusiasts in the ’70s, and it details the role of Xerox’s R&D department in stuff like mice and GUIs.

      • I’ll just throw in here that in 1995 I was working as a secretary and the executive secretary (my boss’ boss’ secretary) did everything with keystrokes rather than the mouse whenever possible. I learned this from her and she was right, it was a lot faster once you got the hang of it. So I’ll just chalk it up to that. 🙂

  4. I ended up liking the US version a bit more than the UK pilot, largely b/c I felt the US version’s worldbuilding was better – though Charles Rocket wouldn’t know “subtlety” if it smacked him in the face.

    Also, Matt Frewer made a surprisingly good idealistic hero as Edison Carter – and that made Max’s more jaded comments funnier, because you felt this was what Edison actually thought of what was going on around him….

      • This was my first exposure to him, but he made such an impression that I’ve always enjoyed him in anything I happened to catch him in: Doctor Doctor, Eureka, Orphan Black, and even extra-cheesy stuff like PSI Factor: Chronicles of the Paranormal.

      • Yes, he would, Jill – if they ever do a US-based DOCTOR WHO series, he’d be one of my first choices.

        BTW, bummed Gravitar won’t show my icon of Beckett blowing a kiss to the camera as Castle staggers back, his face covered in lipstick marks….

      • @Ajax – don’t forget the Tik Tok Man in “The Stand”! (That tv miniseries wasn’t so great, but it had a kickass cast.) And I loved that awful Psi Factor! I forgot all about that, we should do that one.

    • One of the weird things about revisiting this show for me is that the same Christmas I got these DVDs, I also got a couple seasons of Moonlighting — which also feature guest appearances by Charles Rocket, as David Addison’s screwed-up brother.

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