It’s not difficult to see why Harsh Realm didn’t make it in the dog-eat-dog world of new tv series. For one thing, it has a warmed-over-Matrix premise, people trapped in a world that only feels real, waiting for their prophesied savior figure. And it lacks sci-fi gadgetry, set in shantytowns where people have handguns and old hoopty cars that look like prime candidates for Pimp My Ride. When a few moments of sci-fi wizardry do appear, they’re so cheap that you’ll be tempted to double-check the original air dates. The series appears quite a fall for X-Files creator Chris Carter.
Still, Harsh Realm has plenty of low-rent charm. Set in a future that looks strikingly like the present-day Midwest, the series focuses on the military’s latest gizmo: an alternate computer reality that mirrors the real world in every detail. When death occurs virtually, it also occurs outside the game. Originally designed as the ultimate battle training simulator, Harsh Realm is taken over by the diabolical General Santiago (Terry O’Quinn), with vague but nefarious plans to topple the government and put “life” back in real time.
The military sends Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) to kill Santiago in the computer-generated world before his apocalyptic schemes bear fruit in reality. He’s aided by mute healer Florence (Rachel Hayward), who can repair injuries caused within Harsh Realm), and Santiago’s former henchman Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney). Harsh Realm‘s storylines emerge from Hobbes and friends’ efforts to survive in a world riven by chaos and suffocated by Santiago’s Hitlerian rule, but the set-up begs fundamental questions. Why doesn’t the military send an army into the program to stop Santiago, rather than a stream of soldiers who eventually go AWOL? Why can’t they just pull the plug? The first three episodes (it was cancelled after these aired; the DVD set includes the nine that were made) imply that characters in Harsh Realm have nothing like free will, only the rote ruts of their programs; yet, Harsh Realm is revealed as an autonomous reality full of decision-making beings with both sentience and their own arcane religions.
One crucially glaring problem with a series choked off in its infancy is that loose ends remain that way. Aide to Santiago and wickedly sexy kewpie doll Inga (Sarah Jane-Redmond) appears to play both sides of the conflict, a double-crossing bitch stereotype for whom sex is just a chess match. Because she’s tangential, her designs never cohere. Similarly, Hobbes’ wife, Sophie (Samantha Mathis), crops up every few episodes to do amateur sleuthing about the existence of Harsh Realm and the truth about her husband’s supposed death. Though the military has told her that he died in combat, Inga feeds her inscrutable clues with which to piece together the mystery of his disappearance.
It’s tempting to tie such incoherence to the more general problem of Harsh Realm‘s surfeit of unexplained connections, amorphous backgrounds, and lack of even primitive plot explications. But if you’re looking for answers in the DVD’s sole featurette, you’ll be disappointed. You might, however, be entertained by the litany of grievances offered by disgruntled crew members and players who feel that their baby got the shaft. Carter says that he kept little of the original comic book story, and spun out his plot from a grab-bag of pet obsessions (evil government, hidden truth). His ambitions (he wanted the show to be a combination of The Iliad and The Odyssey) only make the final product more embarrassing.
Despite all the cast and crew’s misgivings, the series is appealing in a good-bad television way. You have to adjust to the butchy, Mad Max world of Harsh Realm, full of cutthroat characters ruled by moral expediency. Carter brings none of the labyrinthine networks of conspiracy that left Agents Scully and Mulder unraveling an infinite web of oblique mystery. In fact, Harsh Realm is little more than Lord of the Flies outfitted with a retro-futurism, but it produces an amusingly dim intrigue. Not to mention the shots of Bairstow’s ass boulders puffing out of his military cargo pants. He can trap me in a Matrix rip-off any time.