So I just watched the first four episodes of Chris Carter's X-Files follow-up Harsh Realm this weekend. The AV Club had mentioned it in a list of shows that never got a proper resolution, and the premise sounded intriguing. Plus, it has Terry O'Quinn in a pretty important recurring role.
The concept is that Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) is a rather heroic Army Lieutenant who's engaged to Sophie Green and nearing the end of his enlistment. One night, some soldiers show up, escort him to a military base, where he's informed that he's been selected to play this virtual reality game called Harsh Realm and take down the number one player, the legendary Omar Santiago (Terry O'Quinn, giving a decent performance in an unfortunate pencil-thin mustache). Harsh Realm was developed as a simulation of the aftermath of a nuclear war, replicating the geographic and demographic characteristics of the United States (or at least as of the 1990 census). He was only asked to pack an overnight bag, so he assumes this should be a pretty simple mission.
Except once Hobbes gets in the game, he finds out that a large portion of the game's population are would-be players who were given the same mission as him, and that Omar Santiago now rules an ever-growing portion of the Harsh Realm version of the nation. Oh, and there's no way out of the game except dying (which also kills you in real life) or discovering Santiago's portal to the real world.
What's weird about watching Harsh Realm now is the way it predicts a couple of shows (there are a lot of elements of LOST and Dollhouse in both concept and execution), while never quite synthesizing those elements successfully.
Like LOST, this show uses its mysterious setting as a crucible of character, with a lot of thematic interest in destiny vs. choice, and talks a lot about faith and salvation. There's also the referentiality/allusiveness to history and philosophy to add depth (the lead character's name and the second episode named Leviathan after his namesake's book, for example). And both possess the same talent for crafting surreal, enigmatic cold opens that draw you in (for example, "Leviathan" and "Kein Ausgang"). And most superficially, there is a driven madman played by Terry O'Quinn, a Party of Five alumnus with an everyman appeal, a shady, wise-cracking mystery man and a cute dog that follows everyone around.
Like Dollhouse, there's the same fascination with where identity comes from and whether technology can create something with the complexity of real human beings. The care and recruitment of the soldiers injected into Harsh Realm is reminiscent of both "the treatment" and "The Attic" from Dollhouse. And of course, both share a paranoid fear of technology hijacking our lives while suggesting that the shady people controlling that technology are actually holding off a far worse threat.
So Harsh Realm has some interesting ideas in play. It also throws in some nice elements of world-building. Since the world is a video game where people disappear once they die, there is no concept of religion or afterlife except for whispers of "the real world" that a savior could lead them to.The soldiers injected into the game usually treat Virtual Characters like pets or possessions since they're not real, which contributes to that same Hobbesian nastiness. Finally, there's a suggestion that a lot of people forced into the game try to find simulations of loved ones from the real world (since the game is based on a fairly recent census) to cope with losing the real thing.
But for all these cool moments, Harsh Realm suffers from several problems. First, Scott Bairstow's character is pretty bland and forced to deliver some of the most thudding, on-the-nose narration you'll hear in anything from a major network that's not Flashforward. Second, Carter lacks the courage to follow his material. There are several comments on how Hobbes' dog would make a good meal for the post-apocalyptic hordes, only for him to be left alone and allowed to interfere with the bad guys' schemes without harm. Third, a crippling case of On-the-Nose-itis, where characters are named "Max Pinnochio" with a straight face and people constantly reiterate that "if you die here, you'll die in real life" (just like in every movie since Tron).
So it's easy for me to see why Harsh Realm struggled, especially in the age before DVDs collected full seasons of TV. It was daring for it's complex concept and dystopian setting, but it was flaws in execution that sank it, not just its' visionary qualities. Like a lot of pioneers, it never reached the new frontier it sought.