The Rube’s Retrospective: A Short History of ‘Max Headroom’
Did you know that we had our own war right here in America? Really! You’ll never guess what it was about either. Land? …nope. Russia? …nadda. How about nuclear arms? …not even close. It was all about Soda Pop!
For many years the battle between Coke and Pepsi soft drinks waged its war on US soil, hitting it’s peak in the mid-80s with Pepsi calling on time traveler/werewolf Michael J. Fox and (semi) flame retardant Michael Jackson to fight its battle. These brothers from a‘nother mother fought on the commercial battle ground with their slogan: The Choice of a New Generation. Pepsi even won many blind taste test battles in Atlanta, GA (Coke’s hometown)! So, how did Coke fight back? With a digital loudmouth from “20 minutes into the future” known as Max Headroom.
Originally, Max Headroom was created by Chrysalis Records (UK) as a new way to promote record sales; a futuristic used car-type salesman that talked to the audience and made snarky remarks in between that week’s new music videos. The Original Max Talking Headroom Show premiered in 1985 and became a big hit on (UK) Channel 4… not for the videos, but for it’s loudmouth American host (ironically portrayed by Canadian actor Matt Frewer). Nobody could get enough of this computer generated VJ (Video Disc Jockey) with an eccentric ego and stuttering wordplay puns. He was fresh, edgy, and original with a sci/fi twist and everyone wanted more.
Running with the popularity of their digital goldmine, Channel 4 produced a one-hour TV movie titled 20 Minutes into the Future. This futuristic tale was set in a bleak world where media rules with an iron fist. Our “hero,” reporter Edison Carter, is investigating Blipverts* when he gets thrown off a motorcycle and hits his head on a MAX HEAD ROOM parking garage arm at Network 23**, the broadcasting company that is secretly responsible for these deaths.
In order to find out what he knows, unconscious Edison is brought up to the Network’s R&D department where his lucid mind gets digitized into an experimental AI program. Instead of just getting a copy of Edison’s recent (possibly incriminating) memories, Network 23 gets more than they bargained for… accidentally creating the first digital AI persona with independent thought and a gigantic ego.
This futuristic cyberpunk tale got rave reviews, especially with head honchos at NBC and, two years later, Max Headroom was broadcast to the masses of America. Suddenly *KA-BOOM!* Max Headroom EXPLODED everywhere! Everyone couldn’t stop talking about this cutting edge show and it’s computer composite star. Max Headroom was so popular that he was interviewed by David Letterman, starred in a music video with new wave band Art of Noise and was the main feature in an issue of Newsweek Magazine.
At his peak, Coke used his witty charm as the company’s spokesperson to sell NEW COKE.*** With the catch phase, “Catch the Wave” coming out of Max’s stuttering voice (and a TV ad with Michael Jordan), the Coca-Cola Company killed Pepsi in sales (1987-Current) which killed the Cola Wars once and for all… but like with all fads, Mr. Headroom quickly came to an end.
Back in 1987 Max was a big hit with American sci-fi fans. Not only was the character smart and funny, but he was very adult, which was lacking from current TV shows of that genre. However, the adult nature of the show was also the cause of it’s downfall. With its exaggerated social commentary and Max’s existential closing comments, the show was deemed too smart for it’s own good and, with the two remaining episodes never being aired, Max was canceled after two seasons.
Max Headroom did survive to live another day, though, with his own talkshow on Cinemax (at the time highly known for it’s indie and artistic programming, not for it’s lovable 90’s late night softcore porn), but with a limited pay cable audience, the show was quickly canceled. More recently, BBC Channel 4 dusted off the digital geriatric and used his poorly aged persona in a series of commercials to promote the national switch to a digital television signal.
Aside from that, Matt Fewer has mentioned in recent interviews that he would be willing to spend hours in the makeup chair for a Max Headroom revival, either in TV or mini-movie form. The Max Headroom Complete Series is currently available as a DVD boxed set.
*Blipvert: a millisecond of compressed commercials that causes lazy couch potatoes to spontaneously combust)
**An inside joke since most 80’s television only went up to Channel 14.
***It’s rumored that sugar was replaced by large, unhealthy amounts of corn syrup. Trust me, it was gawd awful! Coke Classic quickly came back on the market 77 days later.