Max Headroom 101: Who, What, When and Where?

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May 11, 2017

The landscape of news and journalism is ever-changing, especially in light of society today. It can be absolutely terrifying to think that conglomerates of news organizations are pulling strings we don't know about while we're left to live under their invisible rule. Who knows what's actually going on? Who can we trust, really? Can we trust anyone?

If that notion scares you, you need to check out Max Headroom, the satirical British science fiction series that debuted in March 1987.

The dystopia depicted in this series is one you have to see, especially during the bizarre, uncertain times we live in right now. Max Headroom himself is a pop culture icon, having been impersonated by Eminem for his "Rap God" music video and referenced in several movies, TV shows, comics and more. If you never "caught the wave" during his heyday, now's a better time than ever to meet Max.

Consider this to be Max Headroom 101, so you can learn the who, what, when, where and why of everyone's favorite cyber anchor.

Who is Max Headroom?

Technically, Max Headroom is Matt Frewer, the actor who brought him to life originally. But if we're talking fiction, he's actually an AI (artificial intelligence.) His signature electronic stutters and distortion have made him a unique cultural icon, featured in soft drink ads and other promotional campaigns.

Created by George Stone, Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton in the 1980s, he didn't make his first appearance until 1984 with Frewer portraying him as the "first computer-generated TV host." Obviously, technology wasn't quite advanced enough in 1984 to completely generate a host via graphics, so Frewer donned prosthetics and acted against hand-drawn backgrounds. If you've ever seen footage of Max, you've probably seen the trademark line-based, colorful background twisting and turning behind him.

Headroom is traditionally clad in a shiny black suit and sunglasses, with an exaggerated chin and striking chiseled jaw. This is all achieved with prosthetics on actor Frewer.

What kind of series was Max Headroom?

Max Headroom follows the adventures of a sarcastic, smooth-talking digital reproduction of real-world journalist Edison Carter during a bleak futuristic dystopia in which several television networks essentially rule the world. That’s no exaggeration — the government knows all about it too, and plays along, while the networks do what they want without anyone to curtail their schemes. There are no “off” switches on TVs, so you can't escape the watchful eye of the networks, who've even gone so far as to watch citizens through their TVs.

Each episode revolved around the various evil plans the television conglomerates planned to enact on the unsuspecting public. Network 23 is one of the major stations with the highest-rated "new" program, which Edison Carter himself hosts. Real-time ratings are more important than ever in this world, as they translate to money put toward advertisements. In fact, ads have taken over stocks in this world, making whoever performs the best on-air essentially the most powerful entity on the planet.

Every installment of the series is about the inner workings of the crooked conglomerates, up to and including advertisements known as "Blipverts," which are completely capable of killing people just by airing on television. They're meant to condense longer ads into a few seconds so the station can run more, but they're much deadlier than that.

These things and more make the show a delight to watch, as creepy and prescient as it can seem at a glance.

When did Max Headroom come about?

Max's first appearance was in Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future, a British cyberpunk movie that later spawned the television series. It first aired in 1985, kicking off what would be a fruitful career for the virtual desk jockey.

Where can I watch Max Headroom episodes and media?

YouTube is going to be your best bet for classic soda ads and other collaborations that previously aired on TV, but you can pick up the series on DVD. Shout Factory released the entire first (and only) season back in 2010. Unfortunately, the set doesn't include the original Max Headroom: 20 Minutes into the Future series.

Why was Max given such a weird name?

In the Max Headroom TV series, journalist Edison Carter is regularly investigating the corrupt television companies in an effort to blow the lid off of them and open the people's eyes, diving deep to try to expose the companies for what they are. But after one particularly sensitive incident, Max Headroom, the digital talking head, was born. After a nasty incident where Carter was left comatose, the last thing he saw before falling into a coma was "MAX. HEADROOM: 2.3 M" indicating clearance in a car park entrance.

Attempts were made to download his consciousness to create a virtual version of Carter, which ended up stuttering, jittery and a lot more sardonic than Carter, though it was based off his memories as a whole. Max Headroom was born from this series of events.

Next time anyone asks you what's up with that weird name, you'll have an interesting story to tell them.

And there you have it! Max Headroom.