Shades of Gray: Morality in the Max Headroom Series

Having watched the entire series thanks to Shout Factory’s release of the complete series on DVD, I have noticed that there are some six distinct shade of morality present in the series.

Morally Bankrupt
Ned Grossberg, the original chair of Network 23 is clearly the most morally bankrupt person in the series. He was ousted as the chair of the largest network in the world after he authorized the failed Blipvert campaign. The blipvert technology compressed an entire 30-second advertisement into a fraction of that time. The intended result was the prevention of channel switching, thus ensuring Network 23’s hold on the ratings lead, but what actually happened was that particularly sedentary viewers had a nasty habit of spontaneously combusting because they’re nerve endings were over stimulated by the blipverts. Grossberg refused to pull them, choosing to profit above people. 

He later resurfaces as the chairman of Network 66, a rival of Network 23.  Not long after joining Network 66 as an executive in charge of new technologies, he manipulates a tele-election in order to orchestrate the deposition of the chairman and then, to take his place.  When asked what he did for a conscience, Grossberg replied, “I occasionally rent one.” [1]

In the last episode aired[2], Grossberg is involved in a scheme to kidnap babies who are not only conceived in vitro, but also gestated outside the mother’s womb in a process known as “baby gro-bags.” These babies would then be used to star in a reality/game show that exploited supposed advanced cognitive abilities of these babies. He later claims to not be behind the scheme claiming that such an accusation is “beyond even me!” He at least acknowledges that his morals are self-serving, but his claim of innocence in this case rings rather hollowly.  He was willing to kill sedentary viewers, and even Edison Carter to protect the investment in the blipvert campaign; he was willing to smear a politician and entrap a fellow broadcaster (as well as the man who gave him a job after he was removed at Network 23) so that he could ascend to a seat of power; he was willing to be linked with an ethically ambiguous project in order to have a ratings winner and defeat Network 23.  Why should we believe his denial of involvement?

Morally Challenged
The Network 23 Board represents the next level, or shade of morality. I believe that they are the ‘morally challenged,’ due to the fact that they seem to have a firm grasp of right and wrong, but often fail to exercise it.  They are too willing to follow Ned Grossberg’s lead and keep airing the blipverts, even after it is shown conclusively to them that they are lethal. When Ben Cheviot takes over at the end of the pilot, they willingly follow him.  The board seems to lack the will to make independent and risky choices, settling rather for the easy way out. In fact, one of the board members by the name of Edwards notes that “In our business morals are one thing but ratings are everything!”[3]

Morally Under/Un Developed
Bryce Lynch, the teen wunderkind who first developed the blipverts and was responsible for the creation of Max Headroom, falls into the category of “Morally Under- or even Un-Developed.” As a disclaimer, please note that I am confining my observation to Bryce as portrayed in the television series; the Bryce Lynch in  the original British telefilm is much darker and closer to the moral bankruptcy of Ned Grossberg.

Bryce was sent away at a very early age to the Academy of Computer Sciences (ACS), and upon graduation, employed at Network 23. The only thing he says about his parents is that they are in ‘middle management.’[4] The lessons he learned about morality, he learned while at ACS, and in the episode ‘The Academy,’ we see that a basic understanding of morality is not taught.  In fact the Head SYSOP of the Academy tells Edison Carter “We don’t deal in guilt; we deal in information.”  As a result, Bryce’s moral compass is simply not present. 

However, the more time he spends with Edison, Theora and Murray, we seem him developing a conscience.  In the pilot (based heavily off the UK telefilm), he confesses that he’s glad Edison wasn’t killed. This is a markedly different attitude than the British Bryce. The next episode shows Bryce struggling with whether or not to be party to another’s death so that a terminally-ill wealthy woman could be given a life-sustaining treatment[5].  In another episode, Bryce covers up a crime committed by classmates at ACS and shifts the blame to an innocent person, believing that the authorities would figure out that their suspect was innocent.  However, when it looks like the suspect will be found guilty of a capital offense, Bryce manipulates the guilty parties into revealing themselves and proving the suspect’s innocence.[6]

Bryce is far from being a role model, but we see him growing during the series.

Morally Conflicted
Ben Cheviot is the current Chairman if Network 23 following the scandal of the blipverts and fall from grace of Ned Grossberg.  Cheviot is the one who clearly sounded the call for blipverts to be pulled in the face of their deadly side effect of causing people to blow up.

But let’s not be fooled. Cheviot is also a man of his time and trade. He did not get to a seat on the Network 23 board by being a clarion of righteousness.  He has no qualms about participating in the fraud known as tele-elections, noting that the results are negotiated long before the tele-election is held.  He has even gone on record as saying that when Network 23 manipulates the news, they always do so for the public’s own good.[7] His priorities occasionally conflict with crusading journalist Edison Carter’s, as they did when Edison wanted to rescue a girl from death, while Cheviot believed that his time was better spent convincing Max Headroom to go on air and boost the ratings.[8]

In short, Cheviot is a much better network executive that either Grossberg or anyone else on the board, but he’s clearly flawed.

Murray is the news producer and Edison Carter’s direct boss.  Murray is a good man, who lost his family presumably due to his dedication to his work.  He’s much closer to what I could call morally upright than even Cheviot, but Murray is caught between his desire to see the truth exposed and the desire to maintain his job at the network.  He is willing to help but refuses to cross the line and thereby jeopardize the only life he has.

Morally Upright
I’ve mentioned Edison Carter several times earlier and Theora Jones at least once.  They compose the investigative journalist team that is consistently Network 23’s top-rated program.  Edison and Theora fiercely pursue the truth no matter how dangerous it is to them personally, or how difficult it might be for certain persons to hear it.  They are the true heroes of the series.  However, as upright as they are, even Edison is not above falsifying a ‘live’ interview in order to accomplish something good.[9] He is not as pure as the driven snow, nor will anyone ever accuse him of being a boy scout.  He is a man determined to truth and justice, but will bend the truth if necessary to secure justice.

As you watch the series, take special note of the ways in which these layers or shades of morality are played out. It really is fascinating to watch.

[1] Episode 203 “Grossberg’s Return”
[2] Episode 208 “Baby Grobags.” The series ended its network run on ABC May 5, 1988, but this episode didn’t air in the US until September 10, 1995 on the Sci-Fi Network (now known as SyFy)
[3] Episode 105 “War”
[4] Episode 201 “Academy”
[5] Episode 103 “Body Banks” Actually, this is the third episode aired, but it was the second episode produced.
[6] Episode 106 “Blanks”
[7] “Blanks.” Cheviot also acknowledges here that tele-election votes are “computer enhanced.”
[8] “Body Banks”
[9] “Blanks”

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