There's a scene in Back to the Future Part II in which Marty McFly, having traveled to the year 2015, walks into a retro diner. Marty is greeted by a digital maitre d' with white hair, a gentle voice, and smooth, almost plastic skin. "Welcome to the Cafe '80s," he says, "where it's always morning in America, even in the afternoo-noo-noon," the final word skipping out of his mouth as though recorded on a scratched CD.
The maitre d' was a mashup of two signifiers that Hollywood, in 1989, imagined would come to represent the decade. "Morning in America," of course, belonged to President Ronald Reagan. The plastic skin, skipping voice, and pixilated appearance belonged to Max Headroom, the hyperactive, square-jawed computer program and titular star of the ABC series Max Headroom, which arrived on DVD this month, its first time on any home-video format.
That a primetime fad—Max Headroom lasted just two seasons—was considered on par with a leader of the free world as a mascot for the decade says a lot about the pop-cultural splash the seriesmade when it premiered in March 1987. That it has taken more than 20 years for Max to get a home-video release says a lot about how quickly that splash faded after the show was canceled a year later. But it would be wrong write Max off as a quirky, stut-stut-stuttering relic doomed to be mentioned by Mo Rocca on VH1 specials. Look past the Wayfarers and the neon-striped background and Max Headroom reveals itself as one of the most prescient television shows of its decade (unless you interpret Dallas as an extended metaphor for the dangers of oil dependency).
Max himself was the zany breakout star of Max Headroom, its Barney Fife. But revisiting the series on DVD, one of the first things you notice is that in most episodes Max appears only periodically, especially in the first season. More often, he functions as a kind of postmodern Greek chorus, offering his snarky opinion on whatever crisis his human counterparts find themselves in.
The actual hero of Max Headroom is Edison Carter. Played by Matt Frewer (who, in heavy makeup, also played Headroom), Carter is an investigative journalist working to uncover conspiracies, corruption, and chaos in a dystopian future the show describes as being set "20 minutes into the future," a time when television has become, in essence, the governing body of society. Programming executives sit in darkened war rooms straight out of Dr. Strangelove, plotting new ways to control the masses, including subliminal messaging and fabricated terrorist attacks.
Most weeks, Carter attempts to expose these plots with the help of his beautiful technical adviser, Theora (Amanda Pays), and his producer, Murray (Jeffrey Tambor). Then there's Max—essentially Carter's digital id. Max was born when Carter, investigating the shady practices of his employer, Network 23, is knocked unconscious and dragged by Network 23 agents to the laboratory of Wunderkind hacker Bryce Lynch (Chris Young). Lynch, under orders to find out how much Carter knows, downloads Carter's memory into Network 23's computer, where it takes on a life of its own as a fast-talking, square-jawed cultural commentator who exists entirely within TV screens and computers.