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The Unexplainable Eighties: Max Headroom

Posted by: Jon Fine on April 9, 2009

My colleague and fellow blogger Burt Helm, who is substantially younger than me, looked up yesterday with a quizzical expression.

“Jon,” he asked, “could you explain Max Headroom to me?”

And I kind of fumfered around, trying to come up with a response: “Well, it was a cable TV show, after originating in England, uh, in the mid-Eighties …” And there it pretty much trailed off because, well, what was Max Headroom supposed to be? Funny? Satiric? Arch?

It never worked on any of those levels for me—I mean, it didn’t make much sense to me at the time and it makes even less now. I’m generally allergic to sci-fi futurism, but still: How did it happen that “Max” ended up on the cover of Newsweek and as a pitchman for Coke? (And, parodied, in this completely strange and terrifying [and slightly not-safe-for-work, near the end] airwarves-hijacking incident.)

If anyone can help explain any of this to me—what Max Headroom was supposed to signify and whether anyone in the US actually cared—I’d be grateful. An artifact of Max Headroom’s short-lived career as a Coke spokesman (New Coke, appropriately enough) is below.

Reader Comments

Peter Kafka

April 10, 2009 6:25 AM

Didn't it make its way to network TV, too? I remember a particular affection for Max's female costar. Amanda something.

Jon Fine

April 10, 2009 7:24 AM

On ABC in 87-88, according to And: Amanda Pays, as Theora Jones.

David Kaplan

April 10, 2009 11:17 AM

As a commercial, Max Headroom "worked" because it was like a cheesy, annoying song that you can't get out of your head. And like a horrible traffic accident, the jarring, disjointed stuttering quality of this ugly plastic character was gripping, mainly because it took 30 seconds to figure out if there was something wrong with the TV. As a show, I remember watching it thinking, "This is a bad show, but seems like it's on the verge of getting good." Of course, it didn't. But somehow, it sticks with you (hey, no one ever says, "What the hell was Bruce Willis thinking with that Bruno act? Or, what was that whole California Raisins claymation Motown revue?" Hey! Can someone explain that California Raisins thing????)

Steve Mays

April 12, 2009 11:29 AM

It's like trying to explain Twitter. What I can't understand is why it is STILL impossible to by the series on DVD. Legally, that is.

Matt Biscuiti

April 20, 2009 3:35 PM

I read Neuromancer in college, but for some reason didn't make the Max Headroom connection. My strongest memory of the ABC series was how blown away I was when they showed that the network's building had a 13th floor. Oh and Kaplan, there's no explaining the Raisins.

Kristin MacDougall

April 24, 2009 3:20 PM

I am willing to admit that I had a huge crush on Max Headroom when I was a 'tween.

daniel thomas macinnes

May 7, 2009 2:03 AM

Max Headroom was one of the '80s pop culture icons, fitting somewhere between the rise of MTV and video games adn personal computers. I'm sure you could read some cultural satire in there somewhere, but kids like me just liked Max because he was a wiseacre and wore shades.

And, yeah, it didn't occur to me at the time that he was an actor in heavy makeup. He was meant to be seen as a computer-generated character, since that sort of thing was cool at the time. The computer age was just beginning so we were all having fun with it.

Now how about explaining the 1987 Max Headroom pirate broadcast incident? That was just creepy and bizarre as hell.

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