While “Millennium” was so dark as to induce chronic depression, “Harsh Realm” boasts a fascinating enough concept to rise above creator/exec producer Carter’s customary black mood. Mankind’s base impulses and corrupt soul lay right there on the surface in a Chris Carter drama, boasting a general lack of joviality — the kind that gave “Millennium” a Nielsen Y2K virus, causing Fox to cancel the show after three low-rated seasons.
With “Harsh Realm,” Carter gets to explore lots of diverse sci-fi territory, operating as the show does through a filter of surrealism. The basic concept involves an intense, fearless Army guy named Lt. Thomas Hobbes (convincing perf from Scott Bairstow) who has survived the trauma of the war in Sarajevo. He is snuggling in bed with his fetching fiance Sophie (Samantha Mathis) one fine morning when gets called to a top secret government meeting.
Seems the service has fingered Hobbes as a perfect candidate to test out a war-simulation training game code named Harsh Realm. It’s all virtual reality, with the soldier hooked up to brain-teasing electrodes while in a state of suspended something-or-other. His orders are to track down and kill the mysterious Omar Santiago (sharp work from Terry O’Quinn), who has commandeered this ultra-violent parallel world and now rules it like the power-mad nutball he is. Santiago’s beret-adorned minions look like Guardian Angels gone crazy (a disturbing enough concept in itself).
Carter’s zealous and intriguing opening teleplay supplies ample evidence of why he is the undisputed master of delusional drama. He supplies the verbal foundation for a kind of hyped-up, “Tron”-esque “Apocalypse Now” that spotlights how the tyrannical Santiago has seized control and formed his own kingdom. Only Santiago knows the code that can release all of the imprisoned players from lives of limbo, and he ain’t budging. All Hobbes must do is beat the game’s high score and Santiago City is no more.
This is awfully weird stuff, all right. But the performers lend “Harsh Realm” an earnest sort of edge, particularly Bairstow, O’Quinn, Mathis and D.B. Sweeney as a surly revolutionary with whom Hobbes must partner to neutralize the all-powerful Santiago. Helmer Daniel Sackheim (who also exec produces) inflects the opener with an agreeably moody texture that’s enhanced by the audacious camera work of Joel Ransom and his team, as well as Graeme Murray’s detailed production design.
Can a drama about cyber crazies run amok possibly take a bite out of “Dateline NBC” and the “Sabrina the Teenage Witch”/”Odd Man Out” combo from ABC’s TGIF lineup Friday nights at 9? A better question may be whether it can coexist opposite “Now and Again,” the brilliantly conceived new hour from Glenn Gordon Caron on CBS. “Harsh Realm” will have to fight it out with Caron’s eccentric creation for leftovers — unless the “X-Files” crowd can back the series in a way it never quite supported “Millennium.”
The truth is right here, and it maintains that one should never bet against Chris Carter. Tech credits are tops.