The Harsher They Come

Chris Carter's latest slice of millennial dread, Harsh Realm, takes the fun out of the apocalypse

No one revs conspiracy's engines like Chris Carter. Literally. Sure, his camera has inhaled enough secondhand smoke for three lifetimes while snaking through those posh boardrooms on The X-Files and Millennium. Sure, as writer, director, and producer he has gazed indulgently upon David Duchovny's infinite degrees of whimsical perturbation and Lance Henriksen's all-black emotional palette. But this auteur really thrives when evil hits the road. Then he's in his element. Think of all those anonymous limos racing through D.C.'s alleys on covert missions of mercy or destruction, or of those federal cleanup teams swooping in to quarantine the backyard black oil. At heart Carter is an action director, in love with roaring engines, slamming doors, and headlights that blast you back into submission.

It makes perfect sense, then, that the best moments on the hourlong drama Harsh Realm (Channel 29, 8:00 p.m. Fridays), Carter's new entry in the millennial-dread sweepstakes that he invented, follow the auteur's itinerary to the millisecond. Motors growl, guns snap out bullets, troops clamber out of jeeps with automatic weapons at the ready--great stuff, really, vigorous, snappy, and flashy. It makes you want to be a stormtrooper for a few minutes, if only for a chance to be the last thug in that perfectly drawn line of armed men.

Some of the most striking martial choreography occurs in an episode's opening minutes. Carter jams wonderful little incongruities together, then hits stop in medias res: It's a miniepic before the credits roll. In the second episode of Harsh Realm, he defamiliarizes a classic chase plot that surely lies somewhere in Joseph Campbell's typology of myth: A tobacco-spitting bounty hunter and his Panama-hatted assistant force their way into a rural farmhouse in search of a military deserter. Why are they there? Why is one of the men on loan from the Coen Brothers and the other from Mad Max? Before we get a clue, they knock a woman aside, and the hunter strides laconically through a plowed field toward the terrified refugee, who sprints for his shotgun, fumbles two or three cartridges into the breech, and then freezes in some suspended existence at the end of a beam weapon. Whatever you want to call this (high-tech country gothic?), it's a wonderful sequence.

Circuit of darkness: Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) goes in search of his virtual Kurtz in Harsh Realm
Circuit of darkness: Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow) goes in search of his virtual Kurtz in Harsh Realm

So maybe Carter is Godard's truest heir, a genius of pure cinema whose ideal film--his Alphaville--would be all jangled sensation, 90 minutes of squealing wheels and trench coats interrupted by the odd break to hatch the next stage of the conspiracy. Yet as the early episodes of Harsh Realm reveal, when he deals himself too many cards, Carter can't figure out what hand to play. Consider the metaphors on offer here: Protagonist Thomas Hobbes (a mostly inanimate Scott Bairstow, beefed up measurably from his run as Julia's abusive Stanford boyfriend on Party of Five) is picked up just before his wedding, taken to his commanding officer's quarters, and told he'll be sent into the virtual world of Harsh Realm, a top-secret military simulation game. There he will assassinate Colonel Santiago, the highest-scoring player so far. Santiago has crossed over from the physical world to make Harsh Realm an empire of his own (complete with troops, a swanky command center, and an excellent crossed-saber logo that serves as a coat of arms), an achievement that poses as-yet-unspecified dangers for everyone else.

Once he crosses over, however, Hobbes must head for the hills to preserve his life. He is mugged by deserter Mike Pinocchio (D.B. Sweeney, the sensitive man's Bruce Willis) and then blown off his feet by a missile-firing helicopter. Ten minutes into his new life and he's on the run. Harsh Realm soon reveals itself to be a military dictatorship in a world much like Earth, where scant pockets of low-tech resistance keep hope alive against Santiago's armed might, and most of the inhabitants are "VC" (virtual characters) who have no clue that they're mere simulations. Santiago apparently retains some power to cross over into the "real" world; as he warns Hobbes, whom he recognizes as his would-be assassin: "I can destroy you not only in one world, but in two."

Meanwhile, back at the ranch, Hobbes's wife receives word that her husband is dead, but gains scattered hints to the contrary from other "widows." Apparently entire units of Gulf War vets have been mysteriously "killed in action," and sure enough, we see a roomful of them bedded down, beribboned with wires and cords instead of medals.

Business as usual in Carter-land, in other words. The government is responsible, the truth is out there, you know the drill. That comfortably creepy mistrust is augmented by what has come to be his stock cast, including Terry O'Quinn (head of the Millennium Group on Millennium) as Santiago, Henriksen growling cheerlessly in a bit part, and Gillian Anderson kicking in a voice-over. Even that familiar Carter setting British Columbia shows its range by serving triple duty as desert wasteland, forest, and foothills.

Strangely, the sum of all these parts is less than the whole. Check out this scorecard for the series: There's myth (Pinocchio); political allegory of the human condition (Hobbes); allegory as history (the VC, the whole Heart of Darkness/Apocalypse Now riff); and computer paranoia (the Matrix theme). Carter has certainly plugged into the zeitgeist in powerful ways before, but this many connections blows out the circuits.

And so while the action cooks, too often the dialogue suggests writers chained to some abstract meta-story at the cost of moment-to-moment credibility. As a result, perhaps, their dialogue resembles stale Hemingway, like "a man runs, or turns and fights." Didn't Rocky say that? "In Harsh Realm," Mike Pinocchio snarls, "kindness is when your buddy shoots you or beats you...and doesn't rape your woman." Ooooh...now that's scary. And again: "Judgment Day in Harsh Realm is when someone points a gun at you." That sustained advertising campaign doesn't bode well--why keep poking viewers to notice how harsh Harsh Realm is.

Maybe the program is aiming lower, for a war movie's bedrock stereotypes ("I just wanna go home to my girl," Bairstow pleads again and again, all crew-cut earnestness). But then why bother with what is essentially intellectual window-dressing? Good Chris Carter elegantly connects the dots: abductions to Roswell to government plots to alien invasion. Bad Carter, in contrast, fills the page with scribble, which is what we have here: a product as hermetically sealed as those oxygen tents filled with hapless humans on The X-Files.

The greatest flaw in Harsh Realm is its failure to admit (or recognize?) that cosmic dread is as much video-game fodder these days as it is lurking fear. Alongside Y2K panic is a sense of apocalypse-as-funhouse; it's eschatology as edgy adolescent glee. Part of what made The Matrix so stoopidly adorable was the sick-joke prospect of Keanu blankly saving our world.

And so we can love Harsh Realm's chases, while still wishing that Carter might embrace his inner Batman fan. This show could be a lot more fun if the auteur's high seriousness didn't blind him to reality: Sometimes we're all partying because it's 1999.

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