Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Grossberg’s Return

Join me as I re-watch and review every episode of the 1987 satirical science fiction television series, Max Headroom. Even though the series aired just over 30 years ago, it echoes to me through time with its ever relevant themes and thoughts. Today’s episode: Grossberg’s Return.

Today’s episode opens with the most we’ve ever seen of the cityscape at night. We’re never given a name for the city, we could be anywhere, but here at night, it looks like a slightly cleaner version of Los Angeles in Blade Runner. We’re met with Edison lounging around shirtless in bed, flipping between Max hosting “Lifestyles of the poor and pitiful” and the soap opera, “Porky’s Landing.” As he flips between channels we see that the tele-election is happening today and we see an ad for the Network 66 candidate, Harriet Garth. Edison grows annoyed with that and covers his television with a blanket to go to sleep.

At Network 23, they’re concerned because Network 66 is pulling ahead in the polls despite Network 23 is showing Max Headroom, they think that 66 is up to no good and send Bryce to snoop. He calls a woman in the R&D department and she immediately tells him that 66 is using a “view doze” device to boost their ratings which claims to let people watch network 66 in their sleep – this is a scam of course. When we’re shifted into the boardroom of Network 66, we see that Grossberg is, as the title suggests, returned and he’s the one behind the View Doze scheme.

Murray calls Edison into work in the middle of the night because of the rating crisis and in a game of literal telephone, Edison calls Theora. When she appears on screen, Theora clearly has some bed company and it flustered Edison so much he almost forgets to tell they have to go to work. Cheviot wants the team to expose view doze before the voting finishes.

Grossberg tells the Network 66 board that he has a big plan all work out just in time for Harriet Garth to call, angry because someone is camped outside of her house snooping around in the middle of the night. Grossberg assures her of his plan but she didn’t agree to anything and she’s concerned this will tank her career if it blows up. The man in the front of her house films a clip of Harriet going into her bedroom with a reporter and sends only a piece of the clip to Network 23.

Upon getting the clip, Edison and Murray both don’t think it’s enough to follow up with and want to continue the View Doze expose but Cheviot insists that they switch gears and run the new piece exposing the politician because “sex sells”. Edison goes because he has to but deeply dislikes that they send him saying:

“I’m not some cheap paparazzi poking his camera into peoples private lives, that’s not journalism, that’s junk”

All the while Theora is mad at Edison for being angry at her for having her own private life that doesn’t include him. Murray insinuates that if Theora got together with Edison it’d be good for her career and she says “No, I’m good for my career.”

Edison goes to Harriet’s place in a helicopter with a pilot who thinks that ratings are like a war, which Edison fully scoffs at. They view the footage from the tapes that the van outside has recorded but Edison still doesn’t think it’s anything to follow up with. The pilot, Angela, does and she grabs Edison’s camera and immediately goes to follow the man in the video.

In the Network 66 boardroom everyone is worrying because of this but Grossberg says that this is actually all part of his plan. He’s planted this photo for 23 to follow up with so that they can run a counter expose and gain sympathy votes. He can do this because at the same time that the footage was shot, Harriet was actually being interviewed. When Harriet produces this evidence, Network 23 is disgraced and Edison is called to the boardroom. While the Network 66 people are celebrating, Edison seems to know this is all way too convenient and so he stays at Harriet’s house.

The Network 66 head makes a speech about Harriet’s innocent and calls for the resignation of the Network 23 candidate, Simon Peller, as well. Edison is sure that the pictures are real but that there was a set up because they got them at too convenient a time, all he wants to know is if Harriet was in on the set up or not. He goes back live with Harriet and tries his patented appeal to her humanity and morality. He gives her an out by telling her that he think she’s innocent and just been “misled”. Harriet sticks to her guns that she was just giving an interview, innocent.

Back at Network 66 Grossberg reveals that he knows she’s lying, that she was having the affair because he has the entire tape of it. The board becomes concerned because that’s likely to come out eventually and they want to pin it on Grossberg, but he points out that the network head personally assured that nothing had happened, meaning it’ll fall on his head instead.

“Are you suggesting?”

“I’m not suggesting…”

The board has a vote and 3-1 votes for the head of the network to stand down, which makes Grossberg the new head. The other board members, save one leave in disgrace afterwards. Grossberg immediately makes an announcement on the network that he’s the new head and Harriet is out due to lying. Cheviot at Network 23 is completely floored saying “I can’t believe it. They sold her out, they sold out their own man.” Because of the quick turn Theora believes that they might have both been fake tapes but on further inspection, they’re both real with the time stamps edited by the man who working for them and, Network 66. As such, it was all a set up.

“The media is running events, not reporting them”

Thankfully, Edison hasn’t left Harriet’s home yet and is on site to broadcast the whole truth this time now that Harriet has been ousted by 66. The Network 23 execs don’t want him to do this because at the moment they’re winning the election but Edison, wanting the truth, is ready to broadcast her story, even if it pushes the election in Harriet’s favor. At that moment Grossberg calls Harriet and Edison picks up the phone. Edison tells Grossberg that this is one election that the public is going to win for once. Edison then begins his broadcast where he lays out the hoax with the view doze as well as Grossberg’s manipulation of the election. While this is going on Grossberg believes that Network 66 will win anyway because people won’t make any real changes to the system as long as they’re fed and entertained, but when the polling finally comes in the winner is Network 85. Murray looks on hopefully:

“Maybe we don’t fool them after all

The last scene takes place outside at a cafe. Murray and Theora are seated in front of a television, enjoying a drink when Edison comes to sit with them. Edison apologizes for judging Theora about her relationship status when he doesn’t have to right to do that. Murray is mad that the people at Network 66 have basically started a war with them and proceeds to get in an altercation with the man who fed them the footage. Edison and even Theora end up joining the fight until Simon Peller, the candidate for Network 23 comes over and accuses Edison of losing him the election. I’m sure that won’t come back to haunt anyone.

Deep Thoughts:

Despite being the most convoluted plot to bring back a character I wasn’t invested in just to have a villain, I actually really liked this episode. In some ways this is probably be the least technologically driven episode (none of the episodes hinge only on technology, take some notes Black Mirror) but also is one of the ones that is less analog to a problem in the real world. I’d probably say that there’s two major things going on which is that news is being show with immediacy without context and also, the news is used to skew ratings, opinion, and even democracy. These themes are highly interconnected both in the real world and in the show but they’re kind of clunky as a single theme so I decided to tackle them as separate ideas.

Starting in 1980, CNN became the first 24 hour news station so the writers of Max Headroom had already been living in a time where “the news cycle” never stopped which brought on the need for more news or at least, news that was always updating and always relevant. I’m unsure of how that played out in the past but in the present it often means that reports are led with as they roll in, sometimes before all of the facts or the meaning of a clip is understood. This episode really harps on the fact that Network 23 receives a clip which they interpret as one thing but without looking into the report, doing any actual fact gathering or questioning, they run the clip. Sans context. Sans information. Sans fact checking.

This is where we get into trouble. I’d argue this is where a lot of trouble on Twitter reporting happens as well. In a world with increasing amount of information and less time devoted to delving into the explanation or understanding of that information we end up in a position to see a short clip or a headline when news breaks and we don’t wait around for a follow up or an in-depth report before we start reacting and forming opinion pieces without certainty or information. The 24 hour news cycle robs of us a chance to slow down and actually focus on which news stories are important instead of just which news stories are happening. I’d also argue that in life, as in the show, the relevant news (that the view doze is fake and manipulating people) gets sidelined for what is essentially a ratings grab (“sex sells”) leaving us with a less rich news landscape that wants only for more ratings which brings us to my favorite quote from the episode:

“In an electro-democracy we must ask the question, have networks like 23 become government if they misuse their power, if they pervert information for their own ends, if they make ratings into a religion, where is integrity, where is honesty, where is truth, where is the code of ethics?”

This quote is basically the perfect transition between the two ideas running through this episode. These networks, or television shows, have an incredible amount of power. Even though we don’t live in an “electro-democracy”, we do live in one where social and political influence are created by and managed by news media in some sense. We know that one of the biggest predictors of who gets elected in any given election is who is given the most time on news platforms. The people that media report about, talk about, and advertise for, are the people who end up making policy. And while the news doesn’t have a direct influence on what happens in our government (normally), it has an influence on policy, on which issues people notice and talk about, on which ideas get moderated in a public space. As much as we like to laud the internet for creating a wider forum, we do still have news media for a reason and it is and should continue to be moderated in ways which uphold truth, honesty, and a code of journalism ethics. When we have media sites and news channels which do not believe in these ethics, who report news they knew is fake or refuse to analyze news stories to actually delve into the truth we end up in a situation like in this episode. The tape they saw was technically real, but without context and without the whole story it was used to lie and used to manipulate the audience and others into being bad actors.

In an age with so much information and more than 30 years away from this episode it was kind of funny to see the same problem of knee-jerk media being used for both a ratings boost and a political derailing happen on a TV show. It’s just a reminder that even if time marches forward and we movie to new modes of media, we still have the same problems. News sites are still more likely to report on “flash in the pan” news which has little effect on the average viewer than the bigger, more important issues of our day. Media will still follow sex, blood, and money. Media still sways our democracy (at time unintentionally) by not looking into stories that do not yell in our faces. Or by prioritizing only those that do. So yes, I think the episode title is more than fitting. Grossberg is the specter of news conglomerate that is more concerned with their ratings, their sensationalism, and themselves than informing the public. So in this episode, as in real life, Grossberg returns.

Stray Observations:

  • Network 23 appears to let Max host a show but later in the episode Max says he wants his own show so, a bit up in the air about how that works
  • One of the TV specials was “Snow White and the Baby Eaters”
  • This episode is noticeably darker in lighting than previous episodes and has some really dramatic shots which is cool
  • I continue to love every inch of the bad visualization special effects – this time we got a lot of ball graphics and lottery looking things as well as about 12 types of polls – bars, lines, and scanners oh my!
  • Theora is so concerned about Edison that she smokes, which is actually kind of funny
  • Grossberg’s plan is technically really good, if not a little 12 dimensional chess which differentiates this episodes from previous episodes
  • When Grossberg takes over 66, they mangle a quote popularized by JFK: “Defeat is an orphan, victory has 100 fathers” which might originate from here but doesn’t seem to be used properly in this case but oh well, it sounded important I supposed
  • “You can’t fake a tape, pictures don’t lie” – don’t tell Murray about the space future and deepfakes
  • This episode is particularly peppered with purposeful misquotes including: “Television is the opiate of the people”
  • Max butchers a line from Othello at the of the episode but leaves out the word “cuckold” – not sure if allusion or self-censorship

This one was a long time coming but I don’t think we’ll be letting up anytime soon so I’ll see you next time (hopefully in a week or two) with Dream Thieves!

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