Many people don’t realize or know this, but Chris Carter popularized the idea of government alien conspiracy theories with the hugely popular The X-Files. He tried to take advantage of his success by launching a few other television series, none of which even came close to matching the success of The X-Files. One of these shows was Harsh Realms, a short-lived TV series that was conceived before the release of The Matrix, but it was released a few months after The Matrix came out and took over the world with its awesomeness. The show’s premise revolves around a government-created video game that perfectly replicates the real world except for the fact that the virtual world exists in a post-nuclear apocalypse that is run by a dictator named General Santiago (Lost‘s Terry O’Quinn). Santiago has decided to sabotage the game by taking over the virtual world. In the real world, the U.S. military recruits a soldier (Scott Bairstow) to enter the virtual world and find Santiago. The soldier bands together with two other characters in the virtual world. One is a Hans Solo-type of mercenary, ex-solider (D.B. Sweeney) and the other is a mute ass-kicking woman (a la Trinity from The Matrix).

Despite its similarities to The Matrix, Harsh Realms holds its own as a concept. Initially, I had an issue with the idea of a virtual world because it allowed the show to be too open-ended in terms of what can happen during the series. I wanted to see a better defined environment with specific parameters so the audience knows what to expect each week. With a virtual world, anything is possible and you end up with a series that feels more like an anthology series (i.e. The Twilight Zone). However, I was surprised by the discipline the show’s creators exercised in telling their stories. Most of the episodes contain continuity with the overarching plot of the series and the standalone episodes are well-told. Unfortunately, Fox didn’t give the show a chance and it only lasted for 9 episodes. I would have liked to see how Carter would have resolved the story and I think had the network allowed the show to last the entire season, viewership would have increased.

The success of a television series lives and dies by the strength of its characters. Without good characters, a show has no chance. Harsh Realms’ strength lies in D.B. Sweeney’s character, Mike Pinnochio. He reminded me a lot of Hans Solo with his world weary, mercenary rough attitude. He is a complex character who you immediately like from the first episode. Anti-heroes are usually the best kind of characters in any story and Pinnochio is a perfect embodiment of an anti-hero. On the other hand, I had issues with Scott Bairstow’s character, Lt. Thomas Hobbes. He is supposed to be “The One” (just like Neo in The Matrix). Unlike Neo, Hobbes is a whiny little bitch who doesn’t exude any badassness, skills, nor leadership. If he’s supposed to be the one who saves the virtual world, then anyone holding out hope is shit out of luck. The third teammate is Florence (Rachel Hayward), a mute Healer who can, you guessed it, heal the sick and wounded and who happens to be skilled like a ninja. I enjoyed her character and the actress was able to show a lot of depth and emotion without uttering a word. Finally, we have Terry O’Quinn as General Omar Santiago. Lost fans don’t need an explanation on what a great actor O’Quinn is. Here, he is ruthless and intimidating as the dictator of the virtual world. Again, like with most of the characters in the series, Santiago is not written as a generic purely evil bad guy, but as someone who combines intellect and force to create a challenging foil for our characters.

Harsh Realms was a pretty good show that was prematurely canceled by the network. Its a good example of a show that I think would have improved with age. At the very least I wish the network had granted the creators with enough additional episodes to resolve the series. Sadly, the only resolution you will be able to find is in the fan fiction sites online.