Successful pop acts often suffer from what critics call "difficult second album syndrome". An artist pours everything he has into one perfect record, everybody loves it and a two weeks later, the record company insists on a quick follow-up to keep the fires burning. And it'd better be as good as the debut, or better.
Needless to say, most pop acts fail to deliver on their second album. Of course there are those who fail on their first attempt, take Ke$ha. (Please.) With Max Headroom, the situation is not much different — except for the fact that the premiere episode wasn't too hot to begin with. The pilot was a rehash of the British telefilm from two years prior, lacking some of the original's bite and setting up the world our characters inhabit.
Here's the premise of "Max Headroom": 20 Minutes Into The Future, Network 23 dominates the TV ratings by a wide margin. Society is in shambles, the outskirts of the city are a wasteland dominated by garbage, populated by disheveled bums who have no perspective beyond the TV schedule.
When the network's star reporter Edison Carter (Matt Frewer) finds out that the network's highly compressed advertising clips ("Blipverts") make some viewers explode, the network CEO tries to have him killed. Due to plot contrivances, R & D whiz kid Bryan Lynch (Chris Young) creates a digital copy of Carter instead, the eponymous Max Headroom.
Carter survives thanks to quick thinking by his Controller, the stunningly beautiful and amazingly resourceful Theora Jones (Amanda Pays). Networks controllers' job is to direct reporters to their stories via remote link-up. Eventually, the whiz kid changes sides, Max Headroom helps Edison expose the Blipverts' dark side and all's well again.
The reason I'm taking the time to recap the show's premise here is because its second episode completely fails to do so. "Rakers" starts poorly, meanders for some time, briefly touches on a few interesting points, abandons them altogether and then even has the gall to on a homely note.
And when I say homely, I really mean it: Edison Carter and Theora Jones sit on a couch together and discuss the possibility of having kids together. I wish I were kidding.
Max Headroom Episode 2: "Rakers"
Life-threatening future sports are a longstanding science fiction cliché. Take any sport, add death and dismemberment and you end up with either Deathrace 2000, Rollerball, The Running Man or Dodgeball. In "Max Headroom", the deadly future sport du jour is called "Raking."
These are the rules of Raking: Two middle-aged neighbors take positions in their front lawns. Their task is to rake every single leaf off the grass as fast as possible. He who wins gets to shoot the other guy in the head with a shotgun.
Just kidding. Those would be Florida rules.
Since Max Headroom takes place in California, Raking is essentially competitive skateboarding with the goal of killing each other. The skateboards have been motorized with little put-put engines and the "players" wear gloves with a trio of serrated claws to cut each other up with. (Three claws, where have I seen that before... Mr. Logan, might I have a word?)
"Rakers" was shot in 1987, i.e. before roughly a decade before anybody realized how to film skateboarders in a way that looks cool. The trick is to let the camera operator race along on a skateboard himself. In this show, instead you get static shots and a few pans, which makes Raking look like two moussed-up dorks skating along the walls of an indoor pool, dressed in leftovers from "Mad Max: Turner's Thunderlegs."
I refuse to do a full play-by-play on the grounds that it would be excruciating for all parties involved. It has a few good moments which I will dutifully describe below, but overall, the plot is lousy, the editing fails to create any suspense and I already mentioned the conclusion. Our protagonists, ostensibly limited to a strictly platonic relationship, sit on a couch and discuss procreation.
"Rakers" starts with the same opening credits as the pilot. The episode opens with a beautiful panning shot across the wastelands on the outskirts of the city, starting with the sight of a wolf howling at the moon on four stacked TV screens. The opening Raking competition takes place within an abandoned indoor swimming pool with a multi-floor gallery for viewers. This was been quite a find by the show's location scout: Paint's flaking all over off the walls and ceilings, the whole place looks like it could come at any moment.
Raking is presented much like Wrestling or American Gladiators. As mentioned previously, some Rakers look like punk poseurs, whereas others have the build of football players (which means they couldn't skate if their life depended on it). On the upper levels, people cheer the competitors on. A few Rakers wear war paint in the style of Schwartzenheimer's "Commando." Their hair is held up by enough hairspray to deflect bullets. Bookies line the balustrades, taking bets from people dressed in Miami Vice chic. The hustlers are taking bets on who's going to win and who's going to die tonight.
In a blue-lit lounge, the event's organizer is presenting Raking to the head of the Zik-Zak corporation. Zik-Zak wants Network 23 to introduce raking as a TV sporting event: "This could be big! Bigger than Scumball!"
Since Raking is an illegal underground sport, Network 23 executives need to lean on a local politico to remove the ban, Mr. Peller. Everything looks like a done deal until intrepid star reporter Edison Carter crashes the party, reveals the deadly nature of the "sport", the network executive fakes moral outrage, Edison broadcasts his story with Max's last minute (somewhat unlikely) aid. Episode ends.
Let's start with my main grievances against this episode.
Edison Carter comes across Raking by one of the hokiest plot contrivances known to TV writers: A family relation. It turns out that Theora's brother Shawn has taken up the sport in order to support his family (wife and kid). Shawn, sorry to say, sucks at Raking. Our first indicator is that his Raking codename is "Ace". The second hint is that he seems to wear Jennifer Beal's cast-off wardrobe from Flashdance.
On his very first match "Ace" receives three deep cuts across his chest, which the resident shady doctor patches up in a slipshod manner. When Shawn's sent up back into the arena the next night, it's clear that he'll die here. Naturally, Edison Carter interrupts the event just in time to save Shawn. By the episode's end, Shawn has been reunited with his wife and kid in Edison's apartment where the aforementioned closing scene takes place.
Ah, you might ask, but how do Theora and Edison find Shawn? It's because of Winnie, who in the draft stage was probably called "Whiney." She's one of those thankless characters who needs to set the gears of the plot in motion, yet also withhold crucial information in order not to give away the game too soon. Winnie sniffles a lot, giving Theora an opportunity to be warm and nurturing.
So Whiney calls Theora on the video phone, telling her that Shawn's taken up raking. This prompts Theora to immediately abandon her post and leave her desk to an intern. Never mind she's acting completely against type. Theora isn't even gone for a minute when an Important News Event occurs — an arsonist is setting fire to public buildings. Backed up by Murray at the Controller desk instead of Theora, Edison misses the story. Instead of asking Murray for Theora's head on a stake, he goes out to find her.
Edison tries to recruit the services of Bryce Lynch to track down Theora. Lynch is, might I remind you, the psychotic teenage hacker and head of Network 23's R & D division who nearly killed him in the pilot. Now they're buds, though. After finding Theora in a restaurant, Edison enlists the service of Rik, a telegenic urban black guide to locate the Raking venue (named "The All Clear Patch"). The actor playing Rik (J. W. Smith) is charismatic and his role reveals crucial details on Raking, but it never becomes clear why he's helping Edison in the first place. Ennui perhaps?
The main problems with this episode are bad pacing, a muddled plot and how the characterizations are all over the place. Theora promises Winnie money just after walking away from her job. When Theora abandons Edison, he doesn't gets upset even for a minute; he just suddenly brims with concern for his controller. Compare this to how he treated his previous controller, Gorrister. Hormones, I guess.
Murray continues to be a pushover. Bryce is completely disinterested in the whole plot. Max appears a couple of times, but does not really advance the plot in any significant way — so they gave him his own subplot. Rik has no discernible motivation to help Edison in his quest. I presume he gets money out of this, but it's not even implied.
Amanda Pays and Matt Frewer appear to have been forced to deliver some dreadful dialogue at gunpoint: Theora's "I have more important things to worry about than Murray's temper. My brother's in trouble" comes across as completely inane. And don't get me started on Edison's "You're amazing, Grace," addressing a grumpy punk bodyguard.
Okay, enough griping, on to the good bits.
The Good Bits
Max's big subplot is his beef with one of Network 23's hit shows. "Missile Mike" consists of nothing more than shots of a black soldier shooting away with his machine gun, intercut with large explosions. Max is bewildered that people actually watch this show.
At point he asks Murray, the head of the news department: "How dangerous is this person? I am talking about this guy with the inexhaustible ammunition supply. 99 lives and an urge to use 'em all up!" It is eventually revealed that Missile Mike, this mindless celebration of ultra-violence, is nothing but a children's show.
That doesn't explain why Missile Mike is broadcast after dusk; but I'll take "late-night repeats" for an answer. When Max keeps pestering Murray about Missile Mike, Murray sighs: "I'm never going to get used to this. Just because he lives in the TV, he thinks everything is TV."
Max eventually takes his grievance to Network 23's executive board: "It's time the network took a stand on this kind of murder. Preferrably against it." This B story is abandoned completely shortly before the episode wraps up, by the way.
There are some nice scenes about the fringes of journalistic endeavor. We get to see Edison Carter in between news assignments, pacing up and down in his apartment like a caged tiger: "God, I hate waiting for something to happen." To pass the evening, he's actually invited his chopper pilot over: Martinez, who was name-checked in the pilot episode (hooray for continuity). Naturally, they have nothing better to do than to watch Missile Mike.
We get to see a TV anchor speculate that the arsonist burns public buildings as a form of protest against a recently instated "TV tax". News reports dub him the Bureau Burner, a nice touch.
Another broadcast reports the successful launch of Space Shuttle "Leviathan": "Over sixty shuttles are now in Earth orbit and passengers have pledged over 184 million units towards the privatization of the global satellite network."
We also catch two bits of an Edison Carter report filed earlier. It's about how in the Fringes — the wasteland surrounding the city — people eat what they hunt, and what they hunt are rats. This later leads to a nice payoff where Edison is offered a rat to eat. He declines.
There's a nice scene for Murray, the news producer played by Jeffrey Tambor. Quite reasonably, he wants to fire Theora for going AWOL. Sadly, his determination is undermined by Edison's insistence that he needs to hear Theoras side of the story first. Carter was certainly much less forgiving with Gorrister, his original controller in the pilot episode.
A series of scenes shows how Network 23's Sports executive and an emissary of the Zik-Zak corporation convince a local politician to legalize Raking. Mr. Peller stalls for a while, but after a couple of drinks his last remaining question is the time table. The Sports guy is called Jack Friday, the Zig-Zag corporation's Asian executive is called Ped Xing — an obvious joke when you read it, but worth a smile when you hear it.
Finally, I should mention an amusing exchange between Theora and Max: "I think I lost my brother." "Did you check your pockets?" And then, after an half-hearted apology, Max wants to know: "What do men do when ladies are in distress?" With a shrug, Theora replies: "Run away or boast, normally." Strike.
We find out a piece of Theora's back story: When her parents died, she and her younger brother were put into a state home. Theora found new parents, Shawn didn't. This explains why Shawn resents his sister.
Network 23's CEO has a master password which unlocks the two-way sampler on every TV set — i.e. it turns a TV set into a camera. The password is "Cheviot CT0011".
We get to see two instances of "hacking":
- Theora "isolates" Winnie's call "from the databank record" to talk to her off the record. This is accomplished by way of some nice vector graphics.
- Edison Carter stops by Bryce Lynch's lab to find out what Theora was doing just before she abruptly got up and left. Amusingly, Bryce initially refuses to help, citing regulations. Edison gets the needed access from Max instead — since Max lives inside Network 23's computer banks, he apparently can access any classified data. Bryce eventually provides Edison with Theora's personnel file.
And now, for the pièce de résistance of this review... Max's big secret.
Max Headroom's Big Secret
As a TV character, Max Headroom suffers from the most crippling limitation imaginable: He can't walk around. After all, he's just a face on a screen. Therefore every scene with Max has to be framed around a TV set, no exceptions. How do you work around this problem as a writer? The creators of Max Headroom had an ingenious idea: Place TV screens all over the place.
Then they had an even more ingenious idea. A downright genius idea, in fact. Then they decided to dump this genius idea into the viewer's laps in a throw-away line of one of their worst episodes. The viewer, busy marvelling at the anatomical perfection of Amanda Pays, completely misses this bombshell of expository dialogue. In a later episode it eventually becomes a huge plot point and you never saw it coming. Yes folks, Amanda Pays really looks that good.
If "Rakers" were a better episode, I might think this might have been done by design. Given the overall poor plotting on display here, I believe they didn't realize what a genius idea they'd had until several episodes later. That is, by the way, around the time when the show finally found its footing and started to get good.
In order not to spoil the surprise, I will now utterly fail to tell you the actual nature of the genius idea under discussion. Just trust me on this: It's a great conceit and it totally justifies that Max may pop into any scene without the writers having to engage in mental gymnastics to somehow justify "Why is there a TV set in this room?"
For now, the TV sets are just there and you will have to wait, say, six to nine weeks for me to tell you why. I'm actually not sure which episode featured the big reveal. Might be in season two, which we will reach in... okay, it's Math Time.
Let's see now. This site runs one "Max Headroom" episode review every three weeks for a total of fourteen episodes. Carry the two, consider I might miss a deadline or three... to put it plainly: If you want to shorten the wait, just send an e-mail to Republibot 3.0 who decided I only get to write one review every 21 days. Or you could just buy the DVD box set (I don't get any kickbacks for writing this) and watch the show yourself. If only to marvel at Amanda Pays' perfect, pouty lips.
Will Conservatives Like This Episode?
Raking is portrayed as a teen sport until two unscrupulous middle-aged low-lifes rebrand it into an underground betting sensation. They sell the rights to Raking to Network 23 and then try to hightail it before the network's sports executive realizes how brutal Raking actually has become. If you think that's stretching the truth, you might want to watch the wrestling documentary "Beyond The Mat." Anyway, this is capitalism at its finest: Take the money and run.
Politicians are portrayed as fundamentally corrupt and easily swayed by people who promise them money. Big news here.
But... after the bleak outlook into the future of the pilot, this episode fully embraces wholesome family values. Shawn goes Raking to earn money for his wife and kid. He's literally killing himself for him. Theora drops everything when she finds out her brother is in trouble. Edison and Theora end up on a couch together, with Carter suggesting they should start a family.
This is as wholesome as a scifi show set in a scary, dysfunctional and oppressive future can get, folks. Have I mentioned before that "Rakers" is one of the worst episodes this show has produced? Come to think of it, I might have.
Overall episode rating: * (out of four)
Join us in three weeks as we look at Max Headroom's third episode, "Body Bags." The entire US series is currently out on DVD from Shout Factory at a suggested retail price of 30 US-$.