Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Scott Brown on How Max Headroom Predicted the Demise of TV Journalism

Illustration: Leo Espinosa
Illustration: Leo Espinosa
Pity Max Headroom. We think of him today as an empty-headed relic of the 1980s—if we think of him at all. Well, allow me to refresh your Memorex: Max was a computer-enhanced “talking head” with a freakishly sculpted scalp, chronic stutter, and a knack for one-liners. Though he spent most of the late ’80s hawking New Coke (“C-c-c-catch the wave!”), Max was more than a Spuds MacKenzie-style spokesgimmick. His creators designed him as high satire and dark prophecy. In 1987, he starred in a landmark cyberpunk series on ABC, a media-spoofing sci-fi adventure set in a dystopia that exists “twenty minutes into the future.”
Two decades later, right around the time that future is supposed to be happening, Max Headroom is getting a DVD release, and maybe Max will get his due. Turns out he sold us more than sugar water. “I’m an image whose time has come,” he told us back then, and he wasn’t kidding. Max was the forehead of today’s mass punditocracy, presaging Glenn Beck, Keith Olbermann, and the rest of today’s flesh-and-blood bloviators.
Max wasn’t the first talking head, of course. Hired to invent a new kind of free-floating veejay personality for Britain’s Channel 4, British video artists Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton created him in reaction to the “false intimacy” of US television personalities in the Reagan era. The concept was picked up in the US by ABC, and the pair (along with writer-futurist George Stone) poured all their tele-disgust into Max and his mythos — enough to fill 14 episodes of the short-lived prime-time drama. (It was canceled after one season.) In the series, Max is the accidentally downloaded consciousness of a crusading TV newsman named Edison Carter. (Both were played by Canadian actor Matt Frewer.) Max was the true journalist’s evil twin: Where Edison sought the facts at any cost, Max was content with flash-fried opinion. Where Edison bemoaned the creeping commercialization of the airwaves, Max embraced it (albeit ironically), going to commercial with “And the Max Headroom award for worst commercial goes to …” Max was a fact-free zone, supremely confident and totally subjective. For Jankel, he was a Frankenstein monster of media excess, a figure of “pure, amped-up, swaggering arrogance.”
The irony, of course, is that two decades on, Max wouldn’t stand out in a crowd (and not just because he has no legs). There are hundreds, maybe thousands, of heads-in-boxes today, each with just as many catchphrases — and just as few facts. With the hair and the hyperwhiteness, Fox News’ Beck is clearly the child of Max; he simply substitutes crocodile tears for neck-jerks when he tells us to “t-t-t-take our country back!”
Thankfully, Max gave birth to more than a new generation of screen-hoarding Svengalis: He also gave us the key to busting their monopoly. See, on the show, Max was uncontrollable. He represented both the machine and the ghost that haunted it. He flitted from screen to screen, saying his piece to anyone who’d listen. Today, we’re all little Maxes, opining away, fragmenting the feared and revered Boob Tube of the ’80s into that far less monolithic series of tubes we call the Internet. Which, unlike TV, talks back. That’s why the days of all-powerful networks are already as distant as the cola wars.
That’s cold comfort for Max, of course, who clearly misses his celebrity status. He was recently brought back for a British PSA on the changeover to digital television. He was old and cranky, bemoaning the loss of his uniqueness. “Don’t they realize that it all started with me?” he whines — adding ominously, “You’ll be digital like me s-s-s-someday!” Someday is now, Max. And th-th-thank you for making it possible. Sorry you’re now stuck in the same box as Chris Matthews. I’d suggest you change the channel, but, well, you don’t have any hands.
Email scottiswired@gmail.com.
I'll say it again..."Max Headroom" was a brilliant television satire/dystopia. Viewing it now, over twenty years later, will prove to be a rewarding experience. It deserves to be remembered, studied and honored.

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