Judge Joel Pearce has a digital virtual reality version of Sheboygan, Wisconsin stored and running on his laptop. Nobody is quite sure why...
The Ultimate Mind Game
Well, here I am again, reviewing yet another failed television show. DVD has been a great medium for these forgotten failed attempts, because we get a chance to see where the show was heading just before it was pulled, and get to hear the creators talk about the experience of making the part of the series that does survive. Not many work as a complete product, though; as a series does need some amount of closure in order to be worth watching multiple times.
This particular failure is a dimensional portal video game world science fiction show that had the distinct disadvantage of coming out just after The Matrix. The audience came into Harsh Realm with some very specific expectations because of the similar premise, and seemed generally disappointed with the results. Instead of being given a chance to win people over, the show was pulled after a brief three episodes. What must have seemed like a wise financial choice at the time now seems, in retrospect, a very foolish move; one that cut off at the knees a show that could have grown into a runaway hit.
Facts of the Case
A highly decorated military hero named Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow, Significant Others, Party of Five) has finally finished his tour of duty and is feeling ready to settle down with his fiancée Sophie (Samantha Mathis, The Punisher). Before he does, though, the U.S. Army pulls him in for one last mission. They have developed a computerized military simulation called "Harsh Realm" that is a complete virtual replica of our world. It was meant to be used as a tactical training program, but a problem has arisen. A rogue general named Santiago (Terry O'Quinn, Millennium) has taken over the virtual country, and they need Hobbs to go in and kill him.
What they don't tell Hobbes is that Santiago has fortified himself inside an enormous walled city, leaving the rest of the country a dangerous demilitarized zone where every person needs to fight for themselves. Hobbes isn't the first soldier to be sent after Santiago, either—but none of the hundreds sent have managed to kill him. They also can't die in the virtual world, or else they will go brain-dead in the real world. All of this makes for a pretty steep learning curve for our hero. But he soon finds himself working alongside a mysterious soldier named Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney, The Cutting Edge) and a mute healer named Florence (Rachel Hayward), who both have secrets of their own.
In addition to the three episodes that were originally aired, this set includes six episodes that were produced, but which were never seen on network television:
• "Inga Fossa"
• "Kein Ausgang"
• "Three Percenters"
• "Manus Domini"
• "Camera Obscura"
We should now be starting into the fifth season of Harsh Realm on the Fox network. So much potential is shown in this brief introduction to the series, and we can now only imagine what the show may have grown into if it had been given the chance. After all, the show had just about everything going for it.
For one thing, the scripts are literate and fun. Show creator Chris Carter (The X-Files) managed to take a fairly familiar science fiction premise and turn it into a wild ride of unexpected adventures and keen social commentary. Many writers do stupid things when they develop a world with no set rules, but Carter generally keeps those tendencies in check. There are a couple episodes that would have fit better into The Outer Limits or The X-Files, but I think the show was still trying to find its feet at this stage. "Three Percenters" is the most obvious example of this, with a silly premise that doesn't seem to fit with the rest of the series. Some of the twists and turns in "Cincinnati" are about the same; damaging an otherwise intelligent story. The episodes that do work well are fantastic, though, offering the kind of post-apocalyptic vision that we so rarely get to see.
The world of Harsh Realm reminded me less of Mad Max and more of the Fallout computer game series, with a series of bizarre characters acting in factions and fighting for their piece of the post-nuclear pie. "Leviathan" works as a great introduction to the overall tone of the series, with villains that could fit easily into a Coen brothers movie. The final episode is sad to watch as well, because it gives us an indication of what the show could have become if it had been given a chance. It is structured perfectly, giving us more knowledge about this virtual world while also further developing the characters, all inside a cleverly constructed plot that brings in elements from several familiar stories.
The excellent design of the show is matched by some equally good performances. The last time I saw Scott Bairstow was in Significant Others, another failed television show. He was the weak link in that cast, but the role of Hobbes seems to be much better suited to him. Hobbes is a morally upright idealist, which is a great window through which to view the world of Harsh Realm. Bairstow hits all the right notes, seeming neither too innocent to survive in this world nor too tough to be the simple hero he is meant to be. D.B. Sweeney, generally not my favorite actor, offers a perfect counterpoint to Hobbes. We wonder if this is what Hobbes will be like after being trapped in Harsh Realm for years. The supporting cast is just as good, quirky enough to be memorable but never upstaging the central action.
Technically the discs are quite impressive. The show is presented in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, and has been anamorphically enhanced. It's a nice looking transfer, revealing the high budget of the show. While there is a bit of grain at times, for the most part this could pass as a film shot for theaters rather than television. The show uses a lot of filters, which create a subtle visual difference between Harsh Realm and the real world. The whole show has a great look, and the transfer captures that look perfectly. The sound is slightly weaker; although it's a Dolby surround track, there isn't much action in the rear channels, even during the numerous action scenes.
Perhaps surprising for a failed show from so long ago, this package also contains some worthwhile special features. There are two commentary tracks on the pilot, one with Chris Carter and the other with director David Sackheim. Carter discusses some of the practical and creative choices made during the development the show, but there are many large gaps. He does more explaining than is needed, and it takes a while to get going. Towards the end of the episode, he starts to speculate about why the show failed, which is more interesting. Sackheim is a lot more chatty on his track, and covers a lot of the typical ground. He's a fun guy to listen to, though, and obviously still feels very close to the material.
The other major extra is a half-hour documentary on the creation of the series. It's pretty standard fare, running through some of the typical areas of production, but it's always interesting to see the work that goes into such projects, especially when they only last this long. Towards the end, though, various members of the crew discuss the conditions leading to the cancellation of the show, which gives some insight into the sad state of network television. Following this, there's a ten minute segment on how the title sequence was created, and some television spots.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I suppose one important question remains: if Harsh Realm is so great, then why did it get canned? Even though it's impossible to know for sure, a couple of things stick out. The pilot, while in many ways impressive, is a pretty frantic introduction to the show and series. It must have been tough to believe that this series would be much different than The Matrix after one episode, and that may have turned off a lot of potential fans. It's a show that requires a level of commitment from the outset, which few television viewers are willing to make.
The other major problem for the series happened behind the scenes. The creators of the original comic sued Fox two days after the pilot aired, complaining that they had been iced out of the credits. From everything I have heard, the show is actually quite different from the comic, but it still caused some problems for the studio. While the DVD opening credits very prominently mention the creators of the original work, those kinds of troubles may have been enough to put the show in the ground.
This package contains half of a great season of television. If the show had been given more of a chance and found an audience, we would probably still be watching it today. It didn't, though; and that makes the DVD set a pretty tough sell. It is solid entertainment, and it shows a great deal of potential, but there simply isn't enough of it to make it a satisfying purchase. As it stands, Harsh Realm will never be more than a valiant attempt that died a premature death.
Harsh Realm is clearly the victim in this case, but Fox and the television audience have already paid their penance by missing out on what the series could have become.
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