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Robo-James' Time Machine: M-M-M-Max Headroom

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In the issue of TIME on newsstands right now, I have a brief Short List item on a treasure of ’80s cult TV just released on DVD: Max Headroom, the Complete Series. Sitcoms can be good at critiquing TV (30 Rock, Larry Sanders, e.g.) but dramas have a mixed record at this. (I still have memories of sitting through self-serious, short-lived shows like The Beast and Breaking News, not to mention Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.)

But despite being a vision of the near future made over 20 years ago, and despite its stuttering title character having become an I Love the ’80s Reagan-era artifact (as, among other things, a pitchman for Coke and occasional MTV guest VJ), Max Headroom still holds up pretty well. The general premise: in its dystopic, cyberpunk future, the country is dominated by all-powerful TV networks, who battle each other for supremacy in minute-by-minute ratings contests.

TV is omnipresent and omnipotent, and the series presents it both as a tool of subjugation and rebellion. The latter is personified by Edison Carter (Matt Frewer, who also played Headroom), a crusading reporter who stumbles across a deadly conspiracy—which boosts his ratings but makes his bosses nervous. In the above clip from the pilot (with Jeffrey Tambor as a producer), Edison stumbles on a story that leads to an investigation of the danger of “blipverts”–a new type of superconcentrated advertisements that have messy, unintended side effects.

Some elements of Max Headroom, like any sci-fi premise, now seem a little quaint: not just the Battle Zone-like computer graphics, but the notion that, in the future, hundreds of millions of people would be glued to a single news broadcast. On the other hand, the notion of an omnipresent media is not unfamiliar, and as a one-man news crew carrying his own camera, Edison presages the stripped-down news units cable news often relies on today.

In all, it remains a fascinating look both into the past and the future. But for those of you who don’t care to shell out for the DVD, here’s Max Headroom in yet another role, starring in a video for Art of Noise: