Consider Harsh Realm Chris Carter’s unfinished symphony, a sadly truncated nine-episode series that is an amalgam of “maybes” and “what-could-have-beens.” Cancelled in October 1999 after airing a mere three episodes, Harsh Realm’s computer game simulation storyline hints at a complex mythology unfortunately unexplored. Unlike Carter’s primarily stand-alone based narratives for The X-Files and Millennium, Harsh Realm offered the chance for more freewheeling moral tales, Pynchon-like narrative digressions not only possible, but encouraged. Certainly one can sense the Gravity’s Rainbow author—perhaps in collaboration with cyberpunk novelist William Gibson—all over Harsh Realm; its army brat leads Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) and Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney) are ironic, tongue-in-cheek critiques of Vietnam-era idealism and military might, characters launched into a virtual world populated by weak-willed, not-so-subtly named VC’s (Virtual Characters.) War-torn history repeats itself in the form of Omar Santiago (Terry O’Quinn), Harsh Realm’s hateful dictator who cribs slogan and style from Hussein, Hitler, and Guevara. Hobbes’s initial mission, laid out in the “Pilot” episode by former Millennium star Lance Henriksen—passing the baton—is to remove Santiago’s Virtual Character from the Realm, though it’s soon proved a fool’s mission to which the idealist Hobbes nonetheless stubbornly clings.
That Harsh Realm’s narrative proper never reaches its conclusion is unfortunate, though oddly appropriate considering Carter’s failure-obsessed worldview. Think of Frank Black’s final sunrise/sunset drive in Millennium or Mulder and Scully’s motel room rendezvous in The X-Files finale, both cases where the external threat remains perilously omnipresent in spite of the lead characters’ blood, sweat, and tear-stained efforts to the contrary. But where those two long-running Carter series end on profoundly ambiguous and epiphanic instants in time, Harsh Realm concludes in media res, denying Hobbes any introspective doubt as to the success of his goal. Yet even in the series’s somewhat bitter incompletion (the final image is a quick zoom into a vault stockpiled with bars of gold) there is some measure of satisfaction to be found. Indeed, seen within the context of Carter’s visionary body of politically and emotionally charged Clinton-era storytelling, Harsh Realm becomes something truly beautiful: the hopeful, life-affirming yang that complements the climactic death scene yin of the creator’s other failed series The Lone Gunmen.
Harsh Realm’s nine episodes are spread over three dual-layer discs and showcased in 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen. For some reason the packaging incorrectly states a 1.33:1 full-frame ratio and when watching the series one wonders if this was a point of contention. The wider image is certainly appropriate to Realm’s Joel Ransom-lensed visuals, but there are more than a few cases where boom mics and behind-the-scenes crewmembers are visible on the frame’s periphery, a problem that would have been remedied by a 1.33 presentation. Perhaps a victim of the early days of widescreen television, Realm still looks good overall, its dark, grainy palette well represented on DVD with nothing like that botched and still unfixed transfer of "Triangle" (you listenin’ Fox suits?) on The X-Files sixth season DVD set. Sound is presented in English and French Dolby Digital surround tracks that give full body to the sound effects-heavy show as well as to Mark Snow’s techno-obsessed score. The Moby song on the second episode "Leviathan" rocks the house.
Two audio commentaries on the "Pilot" episode: one from series creator Chris Carter, the other from show producer/director Daniel Sackheim. Neither commentary is particularly interesting beyond superficial detail. Carter’s is alarmingly gap-filled, as if he’d rather be elsewhere. The creator is more candid in the "Inside Harsh Realm" featurette where he opens up about the show’s creation and quick cancellation. There’s a sense of brewing bitterness as Carter and company (Sackheim and executive producer Frank Spotnitz among them) recall their memories, though they all stop just short of excoriating the powers-that-be, specifically the cancellation-happy former Fox network president Doug Herzog. Best part of the featurette: Mark Snow’s mind-blowing revelation that the Harsh Realm theme song samples several speeches of Mussolini! The "Creating the Logo & Title Sequence" featurette delves into the numerous incarnations of the show’s titles, further proof of Carter’s rightfully picky perfectionism. Rounding out the set are some Harsh Realm TV spots (only for the "Pilot" episode and for the series’s later run on the FX cable network) and a few trailers for other Fox DVD product.
"It’s just a game." A game worth owning.