Monday, March 1, 2010

“20 Minutes into the Future”

In 1987, ABC announced that it would show a drama series based on Max Headroom, the suddenly ubiquitous spokesicon for Coca-Cola products. Max was everywhere, and a certified phenomenon; crude CGI allowed programmers to animate Matt Frewer as he shilled for Coke ("c-c-c-catch the wave") uttering cynical observations on the world he could not take part in. Max also had an interview show based in England, shown on a cable outlet in the US (Cinemax maybe?), where hot trendy guests would sit on a couch beside a TV set with Max on it, and do interviews as though Max were a hipster Johnny Carson. T-shirts were everywhere, and kids went around saying their favorite Max catchphrases. It was a perfect union of technology and popular culture timed to take advantage of the trending youth culture and New Wave. Computers (such as they were in 1987) were hot, and the ads and interview show took advantage of the interest. Max was about as hot as you could get in September of 1987. And, of course, a lot of people burned out on Max because he was everywhere. ABC, with planning typical of major television networks, tried to catch the wave too, just as it began to subside.

ABC's plan was actually pretty bold: their Max Headroom would not be an interview program, but a speculative fiction drama, dealing with emerging trends of pop culture and how they would play out in the near future. Specifically of interest was how television could be used to control its viewers, often in secretive ways that were undetectable without certain skills or knowledge. The result was perhaps the best representation of cyberpunk on TV or in a movie, condemning the very medium by which it was being made available and an incredibly cynical extrapolation that, twenty years on, feels very very accurate. The first episode centered on "blipverts," advertisements that compressed 30 seconds of information into a single second. Networks and sponsors were ecstatic: there was something nearly subliminal about blipverts, such that whatever product they hawked increased in sales. And viewers, often represented as sitting in darkened rooms in front of a TV set, a pale imitation of Plato's cave, also liked them because they got "less commercials." However, investigative reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) discovers that some audience members' heads are actually exploded by the extreme amount of input from blipverts, but sponsors and networks try to cover up the deaths since they will affect bottom lines.

The writing for Max Headroom was crisp and incisive. The production values were among the highest available for 1987. And the show, especially for fans of speculative fiction and cyberpunk, was spectacular. William Gibson's Neuromancer has taken over the world in 1984 and the follow-up Count Zero ad collection, Burning Chrome, had come out in 1986. Bruce Sterling's Schismatrix had come out in 1986 also. Fans knew something new and massive had just happened to the fairly insular world of speculative fiction in the late 80s, and cultural observers and commentators also recognized that cyberpunk was going to challenge a lot of the preconceived ideas about what speculative fiction could and could not do. Max Headroom didn't dumb itself down; instead it took advantage of the tropes that helped to make cyberpunk, and ABC appeared to present them, pretty much unfiltered to a generally unsuspecting audience.

Society has been divided pretty much into two classes for the purposes of storytelling: an upper class made up of executives doing everything they can to turn a buck, especially on the backs of middle class sheep, who remain generally unseen. Lower class characters are generally extremely smart and somehow aware of the machinations of the upper class, and they lurk in the walls as it were, gathering information and just trying to stay out of the way of the upper class. Into this structure are thrown the cyberpunk protagonists, who are able to move back and forth in class structure and who have skills (usually computer/hacking skills) that allow them to come to the aid of society by using their lower class intel to thwart the schemes of the upper class. Cyberpunk is also cynical and bleak; the protagonists are fighting a holding action against forces that are ultimately too powerful for them to overcome; there is a lot of merit to the idea that cyberpunk was a speculative fiction reaction to the policies behind Reaganomics.

I was amazed anything like Max Headroom made it to television. It was smart and insightful, and its humor was cutting. It represented the best of speculative fiction, especially since it acted as a social commentator, something the very best speculative fiction does quietly and well. Friends and I were talking about the show in terms of awe and disbelief, and I remember having a long conversation with a Nebula- and Hugo-award winning writer who taught at the local university about just how impressive the pilot was. And how it was doomed to have such a short lifespan because it was biting the hand that fed it—ripping apart the entertainment industry.

It turns out we were wrong; the show did fail after less than a season, but not because of ABC not giving it a chance. Instead, mainstream audiences hated it. On the one hand, Max, as he had been represented on TV, was all about fun and wise-cracking. While Max Headroom still had that character in it, he was not the main character, and he was not only funny but cynically twisted. On the other hand, the show expected a LOT from its audience; the ideas the show represented were big and uncompromising, and the audience just wanted to be entertained. Using Max himself indicated that the show would just be "fun"—just catching the wave—but instead it challenged the viewers to their very core. And audiences hated being challenged, thus making the show into a self-fulfilling prophecy. After fourteen episodes, thirteen of which made it on air, Max Headroom was done.

So, why this trip down Memory Lane? This morning I have discovered that Max Headroom is finally coming out on DVD, nearly 23 years after originally broadcast ( I have no idea why it's taken so long for it to be made available, but I do know that fans of good television and fans of smart speculative fiction should be lining up to get their hands on the set.

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