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(Soundbite of music)

DAVE DAVIES, host:

Today, Shout! Factory and Warner Brothers Entertainment team up to present the first home video release in any form of an influential TV series and pop culture phenomenon from the 1980s, "Max Headroom."

Our TV critic David Bianculli is very happy to see it again.

DAVID BIANCULLI: People who saw "Max Headroom" back in the '80s should have no problem remembering him instantly and not necessarily from the ABC TV series, which shone briefly and brightly in 1987 and 1988. Max, a supposedly computer-generated TV host played by Matt Frewer, was a media sensation for a while. He hosted a music-video show, starred in ads for New Coke - okay, so those didn't go well - and even appeared on the cover of Newsweek magazine.

But to those too young to have experienced Max firsthand, how do you describe him, much less explain him? Well, let's try. Imagine a background of thin, brightly lit neon tubes, rotating and pulsating in various geometric patterns. Now, in front of that background, place a talking head - no hands, no body, just a head, a head that looks manufactured, like a plastic dummy, but also is eerily human. That's Max Headroom with a stutter, both aural and visual, that's like a record needle stuck in a groove.

But before I have to explain what a record is and a needle, let's just listen to Max. Here he is in the premiere episode of "Max Headroom," being introduced to the network executives who are about to make him a star. He's introduced by the network head played by Charles Rocket.

(Soundbite of ABC series, "Max Headroom")

Mr. CHARLES ROCKET (Actor): (as Grossberg) This will in fact, revolutionize television. This network has the world's first completely programmable presenter.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. ROCKET: (as Grossberg) Bryce, would you please introduce us to Max Headroom?

Mr. MATTHEW FREWER (Actor): (as Max Headroom) What kind of sh-sh-show is this anyway?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. ROCKET: (as Grossberg) This is not a show, Max. This is the executive board of Network 23.

Mr. FREWER: (as Max Headroom) Ah, ah, ah, exec, exec, e-e-exec. You mean you're the people who execute audiences.

(Soundbite of music)

BIANCULLI: There are only 14 episodes of ABC's "Max Headroom" series and they're all here. The show is set, as it proclaims at the start of each hour, 20 minutes into the future, but it's a very dark, cynical, "Blade Runner" type of future. The biggest media giant in the world is Network 23, a global operation and one of its biggest stars is Edison Carter, a hard-hitting TV news reporter in the "60 Minutes" tradition.

Played by Matt Frewer, who also plays Max, Edison is a one-man bureau, carrying his own camera and reporting live by satellite one of many visions of our future this series got right. One detail they got wrong, though, was the size of his camera: It's huge.

But so are some of the ideas this series floats, very sneakily, into a broadcast television program. Like Max Headroom the character, who is an irrepressible talking head, "Max Headroom" the series dares to bite the hand that feeds it. Plots have to do with Network 23, or other broadcast operations, trying to increase their audience share and maximize their advertising revenue through all sorts of nefarious means, like subliminal ads called blipverts, for example, that run too quickly to fast-forward through.

In this future, TV is everything. Here's a live report that Edison Carter presents from the hollowed-out wreck of a former movie theater. His news director back in the Network 23 control room counts down the moments to air and comments on the piece as it runs live. You might recognize that director's voice. He's wonderfully played by Jeffrey Tambor before he co-starred on "The Larry Sanders Show" and "Arrested Development."

(Soundbite of ABC series, "Max Headroom")

Mr. JEFFREY TAMBOR (Actor): (as Murray) Five, four, three, two, one.

Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) Edison Carter, live and direct. I want to show you something rare. This was a dream palace. Years ago, people came here for their pictures to share dreams and adventures together. These were the days when people sat in groups and watched a single movie. Sometimes hundreds of people at one time. It must have been a weird experience. People watching the same screen and the same program.

(Soundbite of sighing)

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) I can't use more than 30 seconds. Nostalgia isn't what it used to be.

Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) How about you? Do you know what a movie was?

Unidentified Man #1 (Actor): (as character) My mom told me about it once. Didn't you have to pay for it or something?

Unidentified Woman (Actor): (as character) Mmm-mmm. It was about standing in line.

Mr. FREWER: (as Edison Carter) And does anybody else know? How about you?

Unidentified Man #2 (Actor): (as character) We were a shared experience, Mr. Carter. People gathered together in communal escapism to share adventure, excitement, laughter, romance. They shared these vicarious emotions together, and that was before they choked the talents out of this business and gave us game shows, and chat shows and news.

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) Great. That should stir it upstairs. Stay with it.

Unidentified Man #2: (as character) Before the world became ratings and people became demographics and everything became the product.

Mr. TAMBOR: (as Murray) Yeah, fighting talk.

BIANCULLI: This is smart stuff and way ahead of its time, as a good sci-fi series should be. To me, the most brilliant aspect of all is the origin of the title character. Edison Carter, being chased by bad guys while covering a story, is trying to escape by motorcycle from an underground parking garage. Instead, he goes airborne, and nearly dies when he crashes into an exit barrier. The last thing he sees is the warning on the barrier: Max Headroom, an abbreviation for Maximum Headroom 2.5 meters.

When the computer genius back at Network 23 downloads Edison's brain into a computer file, the result is a slightly jumbled visual talking head, whose first words Edison's last thoughts become his name: Max Headroom. And, as one of the show's creators explains on a separate disc of special features, it was a brilliant case of countrywide free advertising. At the time, every parking garage in England featured the same Max Headroom sign.

But with a whole disc reserved for extras including a segment in which Tambor and other co-stars, but not Matt Frewer, reunite and reminisce too much is missing. When MTV burst onto cable in 1981, everyone wanted a piece of that action.

Britain's upstart Channel 4 wanted a music video outlet of its own and went to producers George Stone, Annabel Jankel and others, who came up with the concept of a computer-generated wiseguy host who would make fun of the videos while presenting them. But Channel 4 wanted to explain the character, so a live-action movie introducing Edison Carter and the whole "Max Headroom" concept preceded the 13-week music-video series. Those all showed up in 1985, and HBO, which had financed part of it, showed the original movie and the "Max Headroom" video series on HBO and Cinemax, respectively.

But with a whole disc of extras, why aren't there any of those Max Headroom music-video shows? Why couldn't we have seen him, once again, interview some of that era's big pop stars, like an unforgettably amused Sting? And why not show a New Coke ad or two, for old time's sake?

When TV of the future becomes our collective TV past, we have a duty to preserve it. What there is on this "Max Headroom" set is delightful but I want more.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is TV critic for TVWorthWatching.com and teaches television and film at Rowan University in New Jersey.

You can see clips from the original "Max Headroom" series and download podcasts of our show at freshair.npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter at nprfreshair.

For Terry Gross, I'm Dave Davies.

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