Max Headroom: S1E2, “Rakers”

Theora Jones
Original Air Date: April 7, 1987

[Max Headroom is only available on DVD.]

“It’s time the network took a stand on this kind of murder. Preferably against it.” –Max Headroom.

While current practice in network TV seems to dictate that a show’s second episode should be sort of a rehash of the pilot — restating the broad themes of the show and reintroducing its world for the benefit of viewers who may have missed the first episode — Max Headroom‘s second episode forges boldly ahead. Its primary purpose is not to remind us of what we saw in “Blipverts”, but to take care of some not-quite-finished business that the plot-stuffed pilot didn’t really get around to: filling in some shading on the show’s central relationship.

Because while on the surface “Rakers” appears to be about the dangers of violent underground sports, or the impact of televised violence, what it’s mostly about is “How do Edison Carter and Theora Jones feel about each other?”

Our cold open shows us a squad of dangerous-looking hairsprayed youths being secretly trucked into a deserted building. The kids carry skateboards that have been fixed up with lawnmower engines, operated with a hand control, that give them extra speed and make a rather unpleasant noise. In the off hand, they carry spiked leather gloves, whose purpose is as obvious as it is gruesome. These are the Rakers, and on the fringes of the city, they’re kind of a big deal.

Raking, we are told later, was originally just a stunt/trick pastime; youths with more enthusiasm than sense tricked out their boards with motors, and the inevitable collisions and injuries that resulted were “part of the macho style.” But somewhere down the line, small-time mobsters got involved and introduced a rake-the-other-guy-to-death aspect to the sport, which apparently turned it into a hit. Side betting is prodigious, and since the Fringes are full of dumb teenagers with no real prospects, there’s plenty of raw material to replace the ones who get themselves killed on the track.

Still, our small-time mobsters dare to dream big. They’ve sent out feelers to more legitimate businessmen, namely Ped Xing of the Zik-Zak Corporation (Arsenio Trinidad) and Jack Friday, Head of Sport for Network 23 (Wortham Krimmer). The goal: to sell the rights to the sport to Zik-Zak for gobs of money; Network 23 would become the exclusive broadcast partner, and the ratings promise to be “bigger than scumball.” (Scumball, it must be said, does not sound like very much fun.) Of course, the sport is illegal, since even 20 Minutes Into The Future the authorities take a dim view of children tearing each other apart for profit, but one thing at a time, right?

Back at The Edison Carter Show, things are dullsville. Edison and his trusty chopper pilot Martinez are on standby, waiting for a story to break so they’ll have something to cover for this week’s show. Theora and Murray are cooling their heels in the control room, fretting over their lack of news content and being pestered by Max Headroom, who has become fixated on a Network 23 show called Missile Mike. The show appears to consist of a vaguely Asian gentleman in camouflage shooting a machine gun in random directions while a theme song plays, and is apparently intended for children. Max thinks the show is real and wants to know why Mike isn’t being stopped, but the gang at the network are apparently used to ignoring his rantings until he gets bored.

Suddenly, a call comes in on Theora’s console. It’s from Winnie, Theora’s young, sweet, pretty, and somewhat dim-witted sister-in-law. She’s calling in desperate need — Theora’s brother Shawn (Peter Cohl) is “in trouble” and she has no-one else to ask for help. Unfortunately, Theora and Shawn aren’t close, and since Winnie happens to call while Shawn’s at home, he disconnects the call and scolds her for getting involved. Theora jumps up from her console, plunks a hapless junior employee down in her chair, and charges off to help her brother.

Naturally, this is when things get exciting. The “Bureau Bomber”, a firebug who has been torching official buildings for several weeks and has yet to be apprehended, chooses this opportunity to strike again. Murray tries to mobilize his star reporter, but has to exercise his own rusty Controller skills since Theora has vanished. He sets Edison and Martinez down on the wrong street, and the Bomber escapes again before Edison can get on the scene. Still no story for this week!

Edison returns to 23 and Murray is furious — well, mildly peeved. Theora left her post, so that’s an automatic suspension. Edison brushes off Murray’s peevery and wants to know if he’s heard from Theora. He hasn’t, and he’s tried her at home several times, and no he doesn’t have any idea where she is and frankly doesn’t care. But Edison does care, and announces that he’s going out to look for her. Murray gets even angrier at this and declares that even if Edison does find her, he doesn’t want her back. “I do!” insists Edison, and leaves a deflated Murray in his wake.

A short game of cat and cat and mouse ensues, with Theora looking for her brother (Winnie is no help, because Shawn has sworn her to secrecy. Theora doesn’t push her — she “knows he has a temper,” which makes it sound like her brother beats up his wife!) and Edison looking for Theora. Edison tracks down Theora’s whereabouts, and finally runs into her quizzing the maitre d’ at a quasi-ritzy restaurant, Shawn’s last employer on record. Apparently he was fired for missing work and showing up late, a consequence of his being “always out raking.” Edison pulls her aside and offers to buy her a drink.

Here’s where we get to the heart of the episode. Amanda Pays has a gorgeous pout, and she deploys it freely as Theora refuses to accept Edison’s drink, his help, or much of his sympathy. Edison points out that Murray is pretty pissed that she just left work, and Theora stoutly declares that she doesn’t care. Edison points out that Theora has never mentioned her brother before, and she responds that she hasn’t shared a great many things with him. Their mother died when they were young, and both of them spent 12 years as wards of the state. Adopted into separate houses, Shawn never forgave her for leaving him behind, but she still feels responsible for him.

The camera grows bored of this heart-to-heart at this point and goes looking for something else to watch. Luckily, over at the bar at this same quasi-ritzy restaurant, Jack Friday of Network 23 and his new best buddy Ped Xing are chatting up Simon Peller (Sherman Howard), a ranking legislator who has been tasked with getting raking legalized. Peller seems to be dragging his heels on the matter, either because he hasn’t been bribed enough yet or because he doesn’t think Friday has enough juice to matter. But when Xing points out that Zik-Zak is prepared to go all in on supporting this new venture, Peller’s interest is piqued and he agrees to look more closely at the issue.

Our heroes have shared their information and Theora has made it clear she doesn’t want Edison’s help, so naturally Edison takes it upon himself to help. He knows little besides the fact that raking is a shady business, so he goes to the Fringes to meet his expert in shady business, a charismatic and dangerous pedi-cab driver called Rik (J.W. Smith). A deft little bit of investigation and subterfuge and the two of them have found the secret raking track and gained entry just as the evening’s big event starts. By this time, Theora is back in her Control chair and supporting the effort; poor Murray, his managerial authority now at an all-time low, has been told this is all part of this week’s story, an investigation into the underground sport of raking, and agrees without a single word of protest.

Our two small-time mobsters are getting a little careless now that the big money has arrived (Zik-Zak and 23 have just delivered payment). Badly hurt in a previous bout, “Ace” (a.k.a. Shawn Jones) is one of their top draws. They decide one last bite of the apple can’t hurt now, and spread the word to some higher-order members of the low-life food chain that Ace is going to win big, while patching him up just enough to keep him up on his board and betting against him themselves.

That’s when everything goes wrong at once — Shawn collapses with the first hit, and Edison and Rik jump into the ring to save him, and the scene devolves into chaos before the mobsters can get away. Special guest Simon Peller is also in attendance, and is horrified at what he’s being asked to legalize, throwing the whole project into severe jeopardy. Edison’s camera is smashed up by a thug before he can go “live and direct” to protect himself from being torn apart, but CEO Ben Cheviot happens to be in the control room and gives Theora his password to the Two-Way Sampler, which turns any TV into a camera. Thus Max Headroom is able to present this week’s Edison Carter Show exclusive on Edison’s behalf, and the good guys prevail.

To be honest, a whole lot of plot stuff in this episode is a confusing mess. It’s never particularly clear why Network 23 and Zik-Zak would be willing to pay for the rights to an illegal sport, nor why such a thing would be necessary given that you can’t have “rights” to something illegal in the first place. But again, the plot of this episode is secondary — we’re here to get to know Theora a little better and watch her pout prettily at Edison, who responds in a dynamic and manly fashion and presto! Romantic sparks kindled. The episode wraps in a charming family scene back at Shawn’s place, with Theora and Winnie cuddling Shawn’s baby, and Winnie archly suggesting that maybe Theora should get a baby of her own. Maybe with some handsome reporter…

Stray observations:

  • Ped Xing is the other Max Headroom character named after a street sign. He is a very broad Asian stereotype.
  • TV has gotten a lot better at make-up in the past 25 years. Shawn the Raker is supposedly near death toward the end of the episode, but he basically looks fine, except for some stripes of red tempera paint on his midsection and some clear gel on his face. Today’s make-up artists are so good at creating “hurt” and “sick” effects, it’s scary.
  • Correct prediction of the week: Reckless kids on skateboards are big business.
  • Speaking of broad stereotypes, this is the first episode where Max gets a little coda at the end of the episode to do some schtick. His schtick is pretty bad, mostly consisting of some offensive and uninspired anti-Russian and anti-Chinese “jokes.”
  • “Territory is theft.” J.W. Smith as Rik is the highlight of the episode; he’s funny, charming, and handles himself well in fights. We’ll see him again.
  • Incorrect prediction of the week: At fancy restaurants, computers take your order right at your table, with no waitstaff needed. (That’s strictly a casual dining thing.)

3 thoughts on “Max Headroom: S1E2, “Rakers”

  1. Most of the episodes of Max Headroom are about a concept that builds the world of the show. The shame of the early cancellation is that the show didn’t get to finish building the world, and then play within it. It’s like the whole series was simply act one of something that could have been a whole story with an act two arc of escalation and an act three of resolving those issues. I know this show was concurrent with Star Trek: The Next Generation, but I imagine it would have had at least a loosely serialized arc eventually.

    • When I was watching with my dad during the original run, his comment was “the bad guy is always the place they work for.” It’s not quite that predictable, but it’s close. 🙂

      • I was looking around at previous posts on this site and, I don’t know why I didn’t reply to this at the time, but that makes me think of Pushing Daisies. In that show it was also pretty easy to predict the villain. It would always be the head of the corporation. When I think of that, and how Max’s joke at the end of the first episode of Max Headroom was about the inherently deceptive nature of network executives, it’s no wonder neither show lasted beyond a second season.

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