Max Headroom – 30 Years into the Future: Whackets

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: Whackets.

Today’s episode starts with Edison flying in a helicopter over a devastated area. It turns out that a building has collapsed, possibly due to low income housing that was built poorly coupled with overcrowding. The police are there helping out so Edison goes to get better footage. Edison stumbles on a scene of people frantically digging through the rubble. Edison asks who they are digging for because it sounds like a child. They people say it is, just a year old at most and once the rubble is pulled back it’s revealed that instead of a child, it’s a television set.

“What’s wrong with those people?”
“Why bother to save television sets, they’re given to needy”

Looking around Edison sees many people pulling their television sets out of the rubble, all of them set to the same channel watching a game show called “Whackets.”

“We’ve seen behavior that makes me question our dependence on television, survivors risking their lives to save TV sets” Edison says chalking the weird behavior up to shock.

While Edison is getting great coverage, the ratings for the show are dropping. Instead we see that everyone is watching something on Big Time TV instead. The execs at Network 23 are worried about the ratings so they direct Murray to send it back over to studio which frustrates Edison. Edison decides to stay on the scene and tracks down the Lieutenant of the police, Rico, who mentions he saw some of this weird behavior in a court case a few years back.

At the Network the execs start to watch the show that people are tuned to on Big Time and it looks just downright awful but they decide to send it over to be analyzed and then re-made into something they can market to try and pick up on what they think must be a new trend. Network 66 also sees the program and is interested in contacting Big Time to acquire the program directly.

We’re shown that the broadcast, while coming from Big Time TV, is actually from Runway Productions headed by two men who are looking at the ratings and have done something to the broadcast that makes people watch it. One of the men, Haskel, is excited that the system works but the other man reminds him that he already proved that at Network 52 and it almost sent him to jail. Haskel waves him off assuring him that this time he has a better plan. He’s not going to use the system himself but sell it off to another network and let them deal with legal fallout while he makes off with the money.

The lieutenant looks into the case he remembers and it turns out that previously a child had a meltdown after watching a commercial on the network. The case was dismissed. Rico calls Edison to tell him about the case and to meet him at Runway Productions where he’s going to talk to the man who made the commercial for Network 52. Before he Edison leaves Theora tells him that people have been coming back to the scene all day, to sit down in the middle of the wreckage and watch Whackets.

“There’s a nice irony to that, in crisis they watch a game show, television before life”

In the office of Runway Rico begins to question Haskel but Haskel says they can’t see anything on his watch and offers to hook it up to the TV. When he does, the TV begins to broadcast some code on the watch and Rico is instantly catatonic. Edison enters the office but doesn’t see Rico. Theora is able to locate him by his police body trackers but it seems like he is dead from the signatures. Edison tracks Rico’s body to the bottom of elevator shaft where he is dead and then reports on the death. When the camera focuses the corpse, it is is smiling. Edison is about to finish his monologue but he looks down at the watch and begins to laugh, so does Theora back in Control.

When Edison returns back to control and Theora mentions that she also felt compelled to laugh despite not finding it funny, Edison gets a hunch that there might be more to the footage than meets the eye. Edison goes to Bryce to try and figure out if there is a way to compel people to do things via video footage. Taking a look at Whackets, Bryce sees that there is a hexadecimal code inserted into the video that tells your brain to release endorphins hooking people on watching Whackets like a drug would. Max jumps in to watch the footage and he gets hooked instantly and throws a tantrum when Bryce turns the show off. Bryce says that Max is having an amplified reaction but if people are watching the program, they will eventually have the same problem.

The Network 66 lawyer comes to Dom and Reg’s trailer van to try and buy the show from them. Dom is ready to sell but when she flirts with the lawyer and he flirts back Reg gets annoyed and boots him out of the trailer. Grossberg, the head of Network 66, lines up a fancy dinner to woo Dom instead. When he gets to the restaurant some of the people there are even watching Whackets on TV. Dom shows up at the restaurant with in a black corset top and a blue boa and tries to pretend she is a fancy and coy but Grossberg really doesn’t care. At the same time Edison goes to Reg and asks him to pull Whackets off the air, which he does. Grossberg sees the show go off air and he thinks it’s a clever business move by Dom, which she tries to play off but accidentally tells Grossberg that she got the show from Runway Productions. Grossberg leaves and immediately gets in contact with Haskel since he now knows who made the actual show.

Dom returns to the van with Blank Reg and Edison and demands to know why they took the show off air. When Edison explains that it was dangerous Dom eventually relents. Theora calls them to tell them the show is somehow still on the air, but now at Network 23 because Max is broadcasting it from memory. The network board is freaking out because broadcasting an unlicensed program could get them shut down for good so they are contemplating turning the entire network off and then restarting it since Max won’t listen to anyone. Meanwhile, Haskel is still trying to directly sell to Network 66, saying that they made the original program.

Bryce has created an antidote for the coding but they have to convince Max to take it and use it in the show. Edison tells Max that he can be transported into the show as long as it takes the antidote code with him, Max readily agrees and nearly instantly after Max is inserted into the show, the rating drops and everyone walks away from the television meaning that the network doesn’t have to turn off the station after all. Max is also cured but becomes sad that no one is watching him.

The episode ends with Grossberg watching Edison’s editorial about the illegal code that was inserted into Whackets and Grossberg cancelling the contract between Network 66 and Haskel.

Deep Thoughts:

One of the major themes in this episode is technology as an addictive substance. Despite the fact that we see people practically worshiping at the alter of television in every episode before this one, in this episode it is both uniquely mentioned (when previously it was simply a constant background noise) as well as there is an additional element on top of the normal level of consumption in the form of the “code” that causes direct 1:1 addiction. I assume due to the time period this was created in its just an underlying metaphor for capitalistic behaviors in general or maybe actually for television and its ability to cause people to eschew other activities in favor of it but in a modern context we could easily argue that it’s close to social media, but even closer to video games.

Social media and video games both employ, with the purpose of “addicting” users, many tactics to keep people engaged with these products. Social media uses a series of notifications, social pressure, and constant feedback to keep us engaged and while these calls to action may keep us engaged, they don’t necessarily lead to addiction on their own usually. Instead video games are a more apt comparison of a modern issues. Instead of employing some “code” that causes happiness, the modern video game uses the ancient art of gambling. Many modern video games (and especially phone application games) have systems meant to active the part of your brain that cause you to have poor impulse control and mimic the systems that casinos, lotteries, and other gambling systems use to cause you to both waste time and money playing the game with little reward. I don’t think it’s accidental that the show they used to represent the addiction to television, to this “rewards system” was a game show. Not only that but people outside the system, not experiencing any symptoms of addiction could see how bad the behavior was AND how bad the show itself was. Much like gambling and other addictions, people not suffering under them have the clarity to see a larger picture but those trapped inside of the addiction may know it is wrong (like when Edison and Theora laugh compulsively after seeing the Lieutenant’s body) but have little or no control over what they do.

This is not to say that all television is addictive (though this show does make me feel like that might be one of its underlying themes even if it never seems to want to directly comment on it) but that addiction is something out of our control. That some forms of addiction are used by companies to market their product. Alcohol, tobacco, and other addictive substances cannot be advertised in many countries due to their addictive nature but when they could, many companies spent decades (and continue to spend millions) to cover up the true level of addictive nature these products caused in order to continue to gain more money. Many countries now are taking a look at how social media companies keep customers engaged and how video games use loot boxes and other gambling-light mechanics in their systems because these have the potential to cause addiction epidemics.

Another things that really struck me about this episode is that Haskel already knows his product works and that he isn’t interested in selling a single episode, or a single show, he wants to sell the entire system and let a larger company deal with any and all of the legal issues, fallout, etc. Haskel isn’t about to disclose any of the problem with the system beforehand either. He absolves himself of the responsibility. He just created the system, what anyone does with it isn’t up to him. This isn’t too foreign to the idea that many large companies like Google and Amazon will buy up products before they’re actually finished or before their ramifications are thought through. Especially forms of AI and other processing. By buying these meta systems, which may or may not be profitable themselves, the protect themselves from competition in the future and the ability to corner the market on new ideas. The more system you buy the less other companies you have to make deals with in order to get a complete project done as well.

Lastly, it comes up again that Max Headroom cannot tell the difference between the real world and the television. Max doesn’t know he isn’t “real.” Of course on some level Max IS real but the show makes such a distinction about it that it makes me wonder if the characters don’t believe Max is real because he can’t interact with the world or if it is because he doesn’t know the difference between television and real life. In the movie Galaxy Quest, the alien species there cannot tell the difference between a television show and a history reel either, it’s an easy mistake to make if you do not have a reference for which things are facsimile and which are reality. We pride ourselves on making television and movies which usually act as though they are real life, not being able to tell the two apart does not seem so unique so there is a question here in that Max is obviously a thinking being which some form of logic: will Max learn to tell the two apart in time OR is there some fundamental flaw in the way that Max is made that does not allow him to?

I think the question is even stranger than that because to Max TV IS reality as he is directly interacting with television. When he loves the game show, he is able to record and broadcast it from memory. Max is able to be “teleported” into the show and interact with it in a way that we, as regular humans cannot. Max can’t tell television from reality because to Max, television is LITERALLY a piece of his reality. It is a tangible, tactile object. Max still has the same fundamental problem that humans face, what is reality but for him it is inverted. The inability to tell his reality apart from what is, ostensibly not his reality is a question of what isn’t television instead of what is. The answer is just as difficult it seems.

Stray Observations:

  • I love that everyone uses typewriters instead of keyboards but there’s a surprising lack of other forms of retro futurism in Max Headroom actually which is curious
  • Television and media consumption are such parts of this universe that they give televisions out for free but presumably not other resources since the low income building collapsed
  • The building collapse scene is basically shot in all orange and yellow hues which is often how bombed out places look on television as well, I’m not sure if they decided to colorize this on purpose or if they just thought it would make it look dusty but it’s quite eerily actually
  • Bill Maher is the evil executive who is making television into literal drugs. Just. Wow.
  • I love that Network 23 and Network 66 go about trying to take advantage of the new trend in two different ways
  • Haskel’s plan to make a system and sell the system is actually basically the idea behind a lot of start ups these days which are unprofitable or legally complex so, good on the show for picking up on that but also, woof
  • I’m sure that there might have been the idea for sophisticated smart watches but I still find it pretty impressive that was an accurate prediction from the show
  • It’s a real hazard to be around Edison, not only does he follow up many peoples death but so many people die because of him
  • For some reason Theora’s space bar just says “ALARM” three times and I rather like that
  • The people in the dump boo Reg when he tries to put on a Sex Pistol’s video 🙁
  • The science mumbo jumbo about the code causing drug-like effects is completely bunk but it’s one of those things that sounds plausible if you don’t know much about how neutral processing works
  • “The show is nothing…sell the system!”
  • Blank Reg doesn’t get hooked watch Whackets because he’s ruined himself toward drugs with loud music. The show has to say this instead of that he took so many drugs he’s immune to all of them now
  • “He won’t understand, he thinks the world IS television”
  • One of the execs actively starts crying because he thinks about their station have no ratings
  • Edison uses the phrase “live and direct” when he tells Max he’s going to put him into Whackets

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 Neurostim!

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