I’m not exactly sure how to explain Harsh Realm, one of the shows that X-Files showrunner Chris Carter worked on in the late ’90s, but I am going to try.
I had never heard of Harsh Realm until recently. My boyfriend and I both have a fascination with shows that have only had one season, and Harsh Realm fits the bill. The last time we went down this rabbit hole, we watched the fascinating and perplexing first episode of Profit, another short-lived TV show made in the late ‘90s; it’s about a businessman who was raised by television and is thus cartoonishly evil. Because Profit was such a delight, my boyfriend and I decided to try Harsh Realm, assuming it would be similarly dated but would also have some good ideas. Instead, Harsh Realm was just baffling.
Harsh Realm is a television show about soldiers trapped inside a virtual reality game that contains an accurate facsimile of everyone on Earth. The only difference from the real world and Harsh Realm, which is what this virtual reality game is called, is that in Harsh Realm, a nuke took out New York City. We follow one soldier who has been ordered to go into the game to take out Santiago, a character played by Terry O’Quinn, who also played Locke on Lost. Santiago is running the world of Harsh Realm like a brutal dictatorship. I want to emphasize that all of this is information that is presented at a whip-cracking pace before the first commercial break. By that point I already felt like the show had gone to unexpected, bizarre places, and the majority of the show hadn’t happened to me yet.
Once the lead character, who is hilariously named Tom Hobbes after the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, makes it to Harsh Realm, everyone is a huge fucking asshole to him. Hobbes, who struggles with the whole virtual reality concept, manages to make it inside Santiago’s walled city in order to take him out. Before he can do that, Hobbes gets distracted by meeting a fellow soldier who has married the virtual version of Hobbes’ fiancée. Hobbes then kidnaps this woman, who doesn’t have any memories of her life as Hobbes’s partner outside the game because she’s functionally a different person. All the while, Hobbes has been getting help from a fellow soldier trapped in the Harsh Realm, Mike Pinnochio, who for some reason is wanted by Santiago and his goons. Oh, and the virtual version of Hobbes’ fiancée dies before the end of the episode. I think her name was Sophie?
This is not a setup for a television show. This instead feels a lot more like a desperate man trying in vain to create something as popular as The X-Files was. This is someone with several ideas that are half-good, cramming them all into one show with no idea of how they’ll all coalesce. Watching the first episode made me feel like I was on drugs. Of course, my boyfriend and I then watched another episode.
Harsh Realm, which was named for one of the terms a receptionist for Sub Pop Records told a New York Times Reporter was “grunge slang” in the 90s, lasted only nine episodes. Three of them aired. All of them are on YouTube. Do with that knowledge what you wish. To think, if Chris Carter took the idea of a bunch of soldiers trapped on an inescapable realm with a ton of weapons to its logical conclusion, he could have invented PUBG.