Max Headroom's themes might not sound especially groundbreaking today: Accusing television of brainwashing society is about as shocking as calling politicians, like, a bunch of phonies, man. But in the Reagan years, America was still getting wise to growing media saturation and to the blurred reality TV can create. The year Max Headroom premiered, James L. Brooks' Broadcast News, in whichreporter William Hurt uses questionable editing to manipulate the news, was nominated for seven Academy Awards, including best picture. Two years earlier, Don DeLillo's White Noise, with its constant hum of radio and television, won the National Book Award. Two years later, The Simpsons introduced a family of couch potatoes who watched the razor-sharp TV satires of Itchy and Scratchy and Troy McClure.
Max Headroom was one of the first network shows to engage with these issues, and in doing so made some eerily accurate predictions about where contemporary television was heading. In the show's very first episode, "Blipverts," Carter uncovers a top-secret program by advertisers to condense 30-second ads into three-second, high-intensity commercials, which occasionally overloaded audiences' central nervous systems and caused them to explode. The spontaneous combustion thankfully remains a bit of a stretch, but anyone who's experienced a House of Paynead sliding into the lower third of the screen during a TBS rerun of Family Guy or sat through a sponsored Hulu pre-roll knows the lengths advertisers will go to tap into the shortening attention spans of contemporary audiences. In the episode "Academy," the lives of citizens are broadcast on TV, their fates determined by audience votes—an anticipation of contemporary reality TV. Other episodes deal with issues like broadcast violence (ratings-hungry networks present a deadly sport) and illegal downloading.
No character is as withering in his criticisms of the TV industry as Max, who pops up unexpectedly to deliver long, amusing rants against Network 23 and the rest of the media. "Have you any idea how successful censorship is on TV?" asks Max in one episode. He waits a beat. "Don't know the answer? Hm. Successful, isn't it?"
Over the last decade, many series have tweaked the television industry, albeit in ways less ponderous than portraying one man's fight against evil, omnipotent media conglomerates. In our era of 30 Rock, Extras, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip, Entourage,and Curb Your Enthusiasm, a show biting the hand that feeds it seems about as edgy as Kate Winslet playing a self-obsessed version of herself, well-aware that the real her will come out looking more humble than ever. But when Max Headroom premiered, the closest TV had come to criticizing itself with any regularity was Lou Grant's loveably grumpy complaints on The Mary Tyler Moore Show,which were usually resolved by the end of the episode, won over by Mary's (and TV's) greater good.
In his review of Max Headroom's premiere episode, John J. O'Connor of the New York Times doubted whether real-life network executives would "put up with a character who finds much of the television business less than edifying." But ABC did keep Max on the air for a second season—less willing to welcome the show were audiences. Headroom presented viewers with storylines about spontaneously combusting humans at a time when Americans seemed more inclined to watch Angela Lansbury solve murders in small-town Maine or John Larroquette prosecute misdemeanors in the big city. By1988, Headroom was off the air, beaten in the ratings by its competitor, the iconic Miami Vice. That show's pastels and blazers became shorthand for the 1980s, but did virtually nothing to address America's growing obsession with and reliance on screens, be they television or computer. That was Max's jurisdiction.
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