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The long-lost '90s Mad Max TV show might be the greatest TV show never made

It was an idea twenty years ahead of its time.

screenshot from first Mad Max film
Image credit: Warner Bros.

There is something so alluring about the idea of what could have been. How would Sean Connery’s Gandalf have differed from Ian McKellan’s? Would the American version of The IT Crowd have really been that bad? What would a Mad Max TV show have looked like?

We came oddly close to seeing that last one, as Warner Bros. spent a lot of time testing the waters in the mid-'90s for interest in a Mad Max show on network TV. Titled Mad Max: The Road Warrior, it was supposed to race onto the small screen in the Fall of 1996, but that never happened. In fact, other than an article that ran in Variety and a handful of other outlets back in 1995, there are almost no mentions of this show in existence.

Of course, there were some obvious issues with the idea. Mel Gibson by that time was one of the biggest stars in Hollywood, so getting him on-board would have blown the budget immediately. The entire appeal of a Mad Max show from the studio’s point of view was the fact that the films cost very little to make and were surprise successes at the box office. There wouldn’t have been the budget even for a cameo from Gibson, let alone casting him in the title role, so the hunt was on for someone to play Mel Gibson at a time when recasting him was considered out of the question.

The biggest change, however, would have been the way the show approached the films’ violence. According to Scott Carlin, an executive vice president for Warner Bros. at the time, “the majority of confrontations in ‘Mad Max’ will be confined to machine vs. machine – such as crashing vehicles, exploding building and other inanimate objects – as opposed to violence against humans.” This would have ruled out much of the vigilante violence that is common throughout the first three films in the series and the over-the-top action of Mad Max: Fury Road.

This change, which would have been necessary to satisfy the censors in the pre-streaming days of television, is supposedly what put original director George Miller off committing to the series, despite the Variety article saying he was signed on to produce and direct the series. The show would have also come out at a time when low-stakes action was more popular among American audiences, with Baywatch and its spin-off Baywatch Nights ruling the airwaves. To further complicate things, Warner Bros. already had a successful science fiction series on the air in Babylon 5, which would have put the studio in direct competition with themselves if they had syndicated the Mad Max series.

How would Warner Bros. have paid for the special effects and chase scenes promised by the hype-inducing article? Through an array of merchandise marketed to kids. In a move straight out of the ill-conceived Robocop animated series, the studio planned to market the show - which was based on films that were decidedly adult in tone and content - to kids to sell things like “toys, T-shirts, hats, backpacks, and lunch-boxes,” according to Carlin.

Sure, the show probably wouldn’t have found a stable enough audience to get past the first season and it would have been a seriously sterilized version of Miller’s vision, but the idea of a Mad Max TV show still keeps us up at night. The lower budget would have forced the writers to explore the world more, giving us more insight into the fall of humanity and the rise of figures like Immortan Joe across the Wastelands. A character-focused Mad Max story, either with overarching plots or more intimate encounters with survivors, would have been a special kind of magic.

It would have been Mad Max: Fury Road thirty years before Fury Road came out, potentially breathing life into a series that was all but dead for decades. Maybe now, with hype for Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga maintaining interest in the series, streamers will be able to give Miller the creative freedom and budget needed to make Mad Max: The Road Warrior finally happen.

Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga is in theaters now - if you got confused (or haven't got there yet), we have a guide to all the big questions with that ending. Get more with articles on Furiosa's new ride, an itinerary on how (and where) to watch all the Mad Max movies in chronological or release order, and the Mad Max movies' entire timeline explained.

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