Max Headroom: The Complete Series (Shout! Factory) – Max Headroom was created in 1985 as a “virtual” talk-show host for a BBC music video show and turned into a media sensation: the world’s first all digital celebrity. In fact, Max Headroom was not a digital creation but actor Matt Frewer under prosthetic make-up and careful lighting designed to look like a computer avatar, yet thanks to computer-generated background, audio enhancements and editing tricks to give him a digital stutter, Frewer and the creators convinced the world that he was a computer-generated creation while Frewer gave him a cheeky personality. After a BBC telefilm (not on this set) and a series of talk shows and other TV appearances, ABC recruited the team to develop a series and Max Headroom, a satirical sci-fi show set “20 minutes into the future” was born.
Matt Frewer plays both Max and flesh-and-blood TV reporter Edison Carter, who is “murdered” while following a story and recreated in cyberspace (my word, not theirs) as a virtual creation turned artificial intelligence, formed from the memories and experiences of Edison but informed by the input of his new world, which makes him a little loopy: the ghost in the machine as court jester. Meanwhile, Edison’s producer, Theora Jones (Amanda Pays) finds the not-quite-dead Edison before he’s carved up for the body part black market.
The series goes on from there, with the great Jeffrey Tambor as the head of the news division of Network 23, Chris Young as boy genius and cyber-visionary Bryce Lynch (who treats hacking as a game) and George Coe as the corporate bigwig with slightly more a conscience than the rest of the board. The show was ahead of its time and remarkably prescient in its satire of advertising, news as entertainment and the media landscape in general, surprisingly contemporary in its subject matter and entertainingly steampunk in its technology and cost-conscious Blade Runner atmosphere. The structure of the show is quite conventional and the episodes tend to be self-contained even as they add recurring characters (I love Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei as the “blanks,” people who have erased their data and survive outside of the system) but its sense of satire reverberates more than ever: the blipvert advertising that causes spontaneous combustion in the physically inactive, information and credit piracy in a world where finance is king (“Credit fraud? My god, that’s worse than murder.”), justice as a game show and the manipulations of news (“Since when has news been entertainment?” “Since it was invented.”). Though it only lasted two short seasons, a grand total of 14 episodes, it won three Emmy awards for its art direction and sound.
The well-produced Shout! Factor set features all 14 episodes on four discs, which look generally good (though sometimes appear to come from second-generation sources), but it does not include the original 1985 BBC telefilm Max Headroom: 20 Minutes Into the Future from Annabel Jankel and Rocky Morton that introduced the character, or any of his old BBC appearances among the supplements (rights issues I assume). Yet there is a wealth of supplements on a fifth disc. “Live on Network 23: The Story of Max Headroom” is an hour-long documentary on the creation, birth and evolution of the character in Britain and the life and death of the American TV series, appropriately enough consisting almost entirely of talking head interviews with the creators, producers and writers of the various incarnations of the character and his shows, including Jankel and Morton (who didn’t participate in the American show) and co-creator/producer Peter Wagg (who did). The absence of actor Matt Frewer, however, is glaring. The most integral individual in the development of Max’s personality, he is barely mentioned in the documentary and nowhere to be seen in any supplement. He is, however, much discussed in the entertaining 35-minute “Looking Back at the Future” round table discussion with stars Amanda Pays, Jeffrey Tambor, Concetta Tomei and Chris Young (moderated by fan and TV writer/producer Javier Grillo-Marxuach, creator of The Middleman, one of my favorite shows of the last decade). There are also interview featurettes with actors Morgan Sheppard and Concetta Tomei, co-creator George Stone, story editors Steve Roberts and Michael Cassutt and American producer Brian Frankish, and an episode guide.
Trauma: Season One (Universal) – Here’s a medical action drama that knows how to kick off with style and an adrenaline rush: in the middle of a high-energy rooftop rescue of an electrocution victim, a helicopter collision sends one craft into the side of the building and the other crashing down on the roof. And that’s the first ten minutes. The rest of the season begins a year later as practically every member of the team ignores the emotional and psychic scars of the event while plunging into self-destructive behavior and riding the adrenaline rush of the job like a drug. Which makes for a very eventful and action-charged version of an otherwise familiar medical drama of screwed up heroes making bad personal decisions while saving lives. Derek Luke, Anastasia Griffith and Cliff Curtis headline the show as the veterans in various stages of adrenaline addiction with Jamey Sheridan providing adult supervision as the tough-love doctor at the San Francisco hospital where they are based, and whose affection for Griffith’s medical school drop-out finally lands him in trouble. Aimee Garcia plays the new chopper pilot and Curtis’ partner, Kevin Rankin is the crazy country boy who becomes Luke’s partner and Taylor Kinney is the new kid in the unit (the proby) and aspiring author collecting stories from the unit members.
Just to up the scale of the spectacle, it borrows a trick from Six Feet Under and shows us the cause-and-effect of each accident that brings the team in (a freeway pile-up, for instance) while still tossing in its share of surprises (a car crashing through a suburban living room). It becomes something of a game: hints of all sorts of possible disasters are seeded into the scenes and the audience is left to guess which of these is going to unravel with near-fatal results. The show remained on the bubble for a while before the network let this one go. Kevin Tighe, star of the original EMT drama Emergency!, guest stars as the temporary unit Captain in the episode “13,” playing to old-timer recalling the good old days while coming to terms with the fact that he’s out of date. 18 episodes on four discs in a bookleaf digipak, with commentary on the pilot episode by the executive producers and deleted scenes.
From the creators of Robot Chicken comes Titan Maximum: Season 1 (Warner), a goofy stop-motion animation parody of/tribute to the Japanese giant robot shows of old, in particular the anime serials where individual ships all come together to create a modular giant robot. It’s all about teamwork, which means this dysfunctional team (a dim-bulb glory-hog team leader, a brainy chick with low self-esteem, a tabloid-rag sex symbol who has earned her skanky reputation, plus a goofball boy genius and a deadpan chimp who may be the smartest one there) is at a serious disadvantage. An entire space opera of frat boy humor and adolescent dysfunction on an intergalactic scale is played out over the nine serialized episodes of the first season. Breckin Meyer and Rachael Leigh Cook lead the team voices, Seth Green is the former member turned supervillain nemesis and Billy Dee Williams voices the Admiral, with Adrianne Palicki and Tahmoh Penikett taking guest roles. The single-disc collection features the uncensored (unbleeped) version of the show, full of foul-mouthed rants and comments, and also includes short behind-the-scenes featurettes, deleted animatics and “Pop-up Trivia” for the first half of one episode among the supplements.
The crime show that made math cool comes to an end with Numb3rs: The Sixth Season (Paramount). Rob Morrow is FBI Special Agent Don Eppes, a driven agent handed the most high profile cases in Los Angeles division, and David Krumholtz is his mathematical genius brother Charlie, an amiable, somewhat obsessive nerd who becomes a special consultant, applying probability and logic to criminal investigations. Judd Hirsch plays their easy-going retired father with paternal pride and fatherly protectiveness and Peter MacNicol is Krumholtz’s best friend and centering voice of reason, and they help focus the show on family (and extended family). The series ends with the long-awaited marriage of Charlie to Amita (Navi Rawat) and a comforting sense of closure despite lives moving on (look for guest shot by Lou Diamond Philips, reprising his recurring character of Agent Edgerton. 16 episodes on four discs, plus cast and crew commentary on select episodes (including the finale) and three featurettes, including the cast and crew farewell “Coming Full Circle: Numb3rs – The Final Season” complete with (often teary) on-set goodbyes from the cast, and a still gallery.
Prime Time Crime (Mill Creek), a substantial 10-disc set, looks like a sampler of Stephen J. Cannell productions of the eighties and nineties and to an extent it is: it includes the two-part pilot to Wiseguy and fan-favorite episodes from The Commish, Hunter, 21 Jump Street, Greatest American Hero, Tenspeed and Brownshoe, Cobra, Silk Stalkings and Booker. But the selling point of the set is the home video debut of four short-lived shows. Missing Persons (1991-1993) is the most significant of the debuts, a precursor to Without a Trace set within the Chicago PD and executed with a cop-show sensibility. Daniel J. Travanti channels his Hill Street Blues persona as the unit leader, pre-CSI Jorja Fox is a junior officer trying to make investigator and pre-In Plain Sight Frederick Weller is just as sensitive and perceptive as he finds people instead of keeping them hidden. It ran 18 episodes. Much more short lived were UNSUB (1989) with David Soul leading an FBI forensics team, Palace Guard (1991) with D.W. Moffat as a career criminal turned private security expert and Broken Badges (1990), a painful misfire with the excellent Miguel Ferrer as a Cajun cop leading a misfit team in New Orleans. 54 episodes from 13 shows in all, collected in Mill Creek’s unique keep case that holds the discs in separate paper sleeves stacked in a snug tray. No episode guide, but the episodes are listed on each disc.
Also new this week is the TV movie The Diplomat (Vivendi) and The New Adventures of Old Christine: Season 3 (Warner), an online exclusive from the Warner website.
For more DVD releases, see my picks for the week at my blog.