If you yearn for science fiction that is both dark and surreal, then binge-watch Max Headroom. Offering both 1980s nostalgia and a vision of networked corporate power that feels uncannily contemporary, Max Headroom is a unique cyberpunk gem.
Title: Max Headroom
Year it began: 1987
Where it can be seen: Amazon; DVD
Who’s in it: Matt Frewer; Amanda Pays; Chris Young; W. Morgan Sheppard; Jeffrey Tambor; Charles Rocket; George Coe; Jere Burns; J. W. Smith
Typical episode length: 47 minutes
Number of episodes: 14
Brief plot description: Dogged video reporter Edison Carter pursues the truth in a future where television networks wield tremendous power. His allies include his controller Theora Jones, young hacker Bryce Smith, and a mercurial digital presence named Max Headroom.
Why it’s worth watching: Max Headroom offers wonderfully offbeat and edgy cyberpunk fare. Shot in glorious video and pulsing with exquisitely creepy electro-pop, Max Headroom channels all the campy intensity of 1980s sci-fi. Absurdly set “20 minutes into the future,” Max Headroom imagines a bleak world of intense income inequality where the state seeks to manipulate everyone via ubiquitous television networks. At the show’s center lies Frewer’s fantastic dual performance as Carter, a fearless and sarcastic investigative reporter, and his digital alter ego Max, who was created when computer genius Bryce transformed the injured Carter’s mind into an evolving AI program. As a literal inhabitant of televisions embodying the increasingly blurred lines between humans and electronic media, Max gives the show hilarious and vibrant life. Max’s constant good cheer and incessant curiosity is rendered uniquely bizarre both by voice-software glitches that make him randomly repeat himself and change pitch, and by his ability to speak to anyone through any of the televisions that saturate this world. Other key roles include Pays’ Jones, an intense and talented controller who guides Carter; Young’s Bryce, an amusingly naïve computer prodigy who is the star scientist at the greedy Network 23; Smith’s ultra-cool underworld ally Rik; and Tambor’s nervous and earnest producer Murray McKenzie. Max Headroom shines especially through its morally ambiguous, cyberpunk world filled with fast-talking weirdos and bizarre hipsters. You’re as likely to hear choice nuggets of postmodern wisdom from Sheppard’s Mohawk-wearing pirate television anarchist Reg, who joins Carter in resisting corporate greed, as you are from Burns’ Brueghel, a menacing young punk who forcibly brings bodies to medical sites that harvest poor peoples’ organs.