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Harsh Realm (Review)

This November, we’re taking a trip back in time to review the seventh season of The X-Files and the first (and only) season of Harsh Realm.

Harsh Realm seems destined to be a curiosity in the career of Chris Carter.

Sure, other projects would fail. Millennium had lasted three seasons, but its audience had been in decline since the second episode was broadcast. The Lone Gunmen would fold after only half a season. However, nothing was quite as sudden and brutal as the failure of Harsh Realm. The show did not even make it to half a season. It was cancelled by the network during the production of its ninth episode, after only three episodes had aired. The six unaired episodes were shunted over to FX, where they could be broadcast away from the media spotlight.

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This might not have been such a big deal if it wasn’t the first project developed by Chris Carter as part of his new contract at Fox, if it hadn’t been hyped up and analysed and debated. Harsh Realm was one of the most talked about new dramatic shows of 1999, and so its death was not a quiet or dignified affair. The cancellation became something of a public spectacle. Most of the attention fell on Fox Chief of Programming Doug Herzog, who seemed to be out of his depth running a major network.

Inevitably, though, some of the attention was focused on Chris Carter. Harsh Realm was a spectacular commercial failure for Carter, and one which raised questions about whether Carter and his production team were ready to face the twenty-first century.

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It goes almost without saying that the actual cancellation of Harsh Realm has nothing to do with the quality of the show itself. After all, it is next to impossible to gauge the quality of a network show after only three episodes, unless it is a complete trainwreck like Heil Honey I’m Home! or The Secret Diary of Desmond Pfeiffer. Whatever problems existed with Harsh Realm, they were certainly not as fundamental as the problems with those particular shows. The core concept is not unworkable, and it is being produced by a creative team that understands television.

In fact, Harsh Realm was barely getting started when it was cancelled. Although the first three episodes all stand alone, they do form a loose triptych that serves to introduce the viewer to the world of the show. Chris Carter wrote each of the three episodes broadcast on Fox, and two of the three were directed by producer Daniel Sackheim. The Pilot, Leviathan and Inga Fossa were all written to establish the ground rules and status quo of the series, with Thomas Hobbes only accepting his mission in the closing scenes of the third episode.

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The cancellation of Harsh Realm seems tied to a number of outside factors. Fox failed to promote the show, allowing it to debut during baseball season with a minimal amount of publicity around the launch. While there had been considerable buzz around the show in late 1998 and early 1999, with advanced screenings for critics and conferences at the Television Critics Association Press Tour in Pasadena. The industry was very aware of the project, and were watching it keenly. Unfortunately, Fox was less keen about selling it the public.

In the run up to the debut of the show in October 1999, Fox invested in a minimal amount of television and print advertising; there were few (if any) billboards teasing the show. According to Frank Spotnitz, the network actually apologised for botching the launch of the show only weeks before cancelling it. When the ratings failed to materialise, the network panicked and dumped the series. To but this in context, 1999 is considered to be one of the worst seasons Fox ever had, losing almost a sixth of their viewership on the previous year.

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Regardless of the circumstances of the cancellation, it is impossible to characterise Harsh Realm as anything other than a failure. The high profile that it had meant that its death was not quiet. It was not gracefully shuffled out of the schedule, but dropped with a load “thud.” It seems entirely possible that the cancellation of Harsh Realm garnered more media attention than the launch of the show. (Only the media circus around David Duchovny’s strained relationship with The X-Files could compete.)

The death of Harsh Realm was a defining moment for Chris Carter. Leading into the 1999 season, there had been talk of retiring The X-Files after seven years. That was no longer a viable option. The failure of Harsh Realm (along with the complete failure of Fox’s new dramatic slate) meant that the network had nothing that might replace The X-Files. As a result, the eighth season of The X-Files was hastily greenlit and the production team began desperately trying to figure out how to make The X-Files work without David Duchovny.

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(Even the plot threads of Harsh Realm seem to prefigure the eighth season of The X-Files. Inga Fossa reveals that Sophie is desperately searching for the love her life, dealing with an unexpected pregnancy in the process. Requiem ends on a similar note, with Mulder disappearing as Scully comes to terms with the fact that she is pregnant. Both arcs even feature the female character exhuming the body of her deceased male co-star, claiming that he must be alive despite the fact that she has been presented with (what authorities claim to be) his mortal remains.)

More than that, though, Harsh Realm killed the idea of Chris Carter as a “super-producer” at Fox. The executive producer had been heralded as a wunderkind in the wake of network’s success with The X-Files, and Fox made no secret of its eagerness to work with Carter on future projects. Carter was obliging of the network, opting to keep The X-Files on the air and produce a feature film at the same time. Signing a $30m contract to develop new ideas for the network, there was a sense that Fox wanted to cultivate Chris Carter as a creative force like David E. Kelley.

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Millennium had not been the hit that Fox wanted it to be. It is hard to describe any show running three seasons as a failure, but Millennium was not a breakout hit by any stretch of the imagination. The X-Files had outlived Millennium, a show that never attained the same level of pop cultural cache; even if Millennium had hit the hundred episode mark, it seems unlikely that the show would have enjoyed the same success as The X-Files in syndication. It has been suggested that the only reason Fox cancelled Millennium was to make room for Harsh Realm.

However, the cancellation of Millennium and the immediate cancellation of the show that had replaced Millennium was a potent one-two punch. Even before the cancellation of Millennium, commentators had been throwing around the phrase “one hit wonder” in relation to Carter’s difficulty getting a second show off the ground. This assessment has arguably become part of accepted mainstream wisdom about Carter in the intervening years, with none of his other projects approaching the staying power of The X-Files.

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Of course, it seems perfectly reasonable to point out that very few television creators manage to produce a single show with the pop culture impact (let alone staying power) of The X-Files. The phrase “one hit” seems particularly cynical when referring to a show that ran for nine seasons and which holds together quite well for most of them. It might be one hit, but it played for over one-hundred-and-fifty hours, cultivating some of the best talent in the industry and proving a major influence on an entire generation of television viewers and producers.

Nevertheless, it seems fair to concede that Carter did have some difficulty spinning other projects out of the success of The X-Files.  It is interesting to wonder how much the mistreatment and public spectacle surrounding Harsh Realm affected Carter going forward. When Fox produced The Lone Gunmen the following season, Carter delegated the running of the show to three of his veteran writing staff. After the end of The X-Files in 2002, the producer’s only major project of note was the failed pilot for The After in 2014.

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As such, the end of Harsh Realm marks the end of a highly prolific stage in the creative life of Chris Carter. Carter was an extraordinarily busy writer and producer during the late nineties, splitting his time between various high-profile projects with a tremendous energy and enthusiasm. After all, he had hoped to spend the 1999-2000 season overseeing the final season of The X-Files, a fourth season of Millennium and the first season of Harsh Realm. None of which quite played out in the way that Carter had intended.

Ironically, 1999-2000 would be Carter’s lightest season (in terms of workload) since the launch of Millennium. There is a funereal atmosphere to Carter’s output from this point through to the end of the show. Even without the benefit of hindsight, it seems like things were winding down as the nineties came to an end. The end of Harsh Realm is undoubtedly a part of that, setting the tone for the last years of The X-Files and inviting fans to wonder whether Ten Thirteen might have much a life beyond the breakout cult hit.

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On paper, Harsh Realm had a lot going for it. Certainly, the themes of the show were quite timely and should have resonated with contemporary audiences. In 1999, viewers were eagerly engaging with questions about the nature of their existence. Thomas Hobbes was not the only fictional protagonist trapped in a simulated reality as the new millennium beckoned. He might empathise with Thomas Anderson, Truman Burbank, Allegra Geller, and Douglas Hall. There was something in the air.

Whatever criticisms might be leveled as Carter as a producer, he had a very keen understanding of the popular consciousness. The X-Files had landed at precisely the right moment to resonate with a generation emerging from the Cold War after growing up in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate. Whatever other problems Harsh Realm might have had, the timeliness of the core concept is not one of them. It seemed that there was a hunger for stories about artificial realities in the late nineties.

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The Matrix was perhaps the most successful of these “virtual world” stories. In Cinema of Simulation, Randy Laist speculates as to why the unreal held such a fascination for viewers at the end of the nineties:

Agent Smith explains that the machines selected this historical period to simulate because it represents the peak of human civilisation, and the inhabitants of the Matrix apparently live in an eternal 1999, literally living out Baudrillard’s pataphysical claim that “the year 2000 will not perhaps take place”, that time would distend to infinitely defer the millennial moment. … The urban skyscraper-scapes, cubicle-scapes, and mediascapes that constitute the Matrix manage to mimic contemporary American reality while simultaneously suggesting that these are the kinds of environments an evil computer program would design for human beings to inhabit. The Matrix-world emphasises important technological innovations of the late ’90s – including cell phones, the World Wide Web, and CGI cinematography – all of which, it is implied, contribute to the derealisation of conventional models of space and time.

At the turn of the millennium, the world seemed less real and less tangible than it ever had been before. Given that Harsh Realm had been in development for quite some time before the release of The Matrix, it could be argued that Carter was attuned to the late nineties zeitgeist.

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It seems strange that Harsh Realm should prove such a hard sell at that moment in time. Granted, the show lacks the same visual flourish as The Matrix, but it was a virtual reality story arriving at a point in time where it seemed like pop culture couldn’t get enough virtual reality stories. More than that, there is a sense that Carter was making a conscious effort to keep Harsh Realm accessible and audience-friendly. Despite its science-fiction trappings, Harsh Realm is arguably less esoteric than Millennium had been.

The choices made during the production seem consciously designed to appeal to the widest possible audience, dumping a lot of the more auteur sensibilities that defined early Millennium. The primary characters are mostly young and very attractive. Although Thomas Hobbes is a clear-cut heroic protagonist in the mould of Frank Black, he is given a cynical and wise-cracking sidekick in the form of Mike Pinochio. Perhaps learning from the challenges posed by Catherine Black on Millennium, Carter is careful to give Sophie Green something to do.

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The scripts for Harsh Realm are careful not to burden the audience with too much exposition or world-building too early. Technobabble is kept to a minimum, with characters speaking in simple and clear sentences. The details of the point of divergence between the real world and the virtual world is only explicitly revealed in the ninth episode of the season. The post-apocalyptic trappings might be clearly visible, but Harsh Realm unfolds in a world that is not too different from the real world; there are buses and skyscrapers and computers and barns.

Indeed, the imagery and iconography of Harsh Realm draws as much from war movies and westerns as it does from science-fiction cinema. Pinochio might drive a car that looks like it was bought second-hand from Max Rockatansky while Cincinnati and Camera Obscura unfold against apocalyptic cityscapes, but the show is populated with soldiers and bounty hunters. Repeatedly over the course of the series, we are assured that our heroes have old-fashioned “wanted” posters out for them.

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Kein Ausgang traps our lead characters in a simulation of a battle that occurred during Second World War where they play The Good, the Bad & the Ugly; director Cliff Bole shoots it through a desaturated filter to evoke Saving Private Ryan. Reunion features a work camp that serves as a strange blend of slavery and the prison work detail from The Shawshank Redemption. Camera Obscura riffs on Romeo & Juliet and The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, even finding room for a tense old-fashioned stand-off.

A lot of effort is put into making the world of Harsh Realm as relatable and understandable as possible, to the point where explicitly science-fiction elements like the bugs in Reunion or “the Face/Off machine” from Cincinnati feel almost out of place with everything going on. Even the glitches that drive Three Percenters or Camera Obscura seems more mystical or mythical than technological in nature. There is a sense that the first season scripts are more interested in story and theme than world-building, which prevents them from becoming overburdened.

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Carter seems to have pitched Harsh Realm as something akin to an anthology series, with Hobbes and Pinochio wandering from one parable to another over the course of the season. The mission to assassinate Santiago provides a loose framework for the show, but Santiago is only really a major player in one of the final six episodes of the season. Instead, Hobbes and Pinochio drift into episodic adventures that provide commentary on the human condition and play out the key themes of the season. Carter compared it to the Odyssey; Spotnitz suggested The Twilight Zone.

There are problems with this approach, of course. The parables can occasionally get overwhelming. There is a spiritual subtext running through a lot of Chris Carter’s work, underscoring the existential crisis of living in the nineties. It became particularly pronounced at this point in his filmography, with episodes like Seven and One taking on an explicitly religious quality. There is a clear religious throughline running through Harsh Realm that is overwhelming and occasionally unsettling.

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The show repeatedly suggests that the moral collapse of the virtual world is due to the fact that it is a “godless” world. Pinochio states as much in Leviathan, and the theme is broached again in Manus Domini. Certainly, episodes like Inga Fossa and Three Percenters position Hobbes as a Christ-like figure in the world of the game. There is something fundamentally uncomfortable about all this, playing into the old stereotype that atheists cannot be trusted because they do not believe in a higher power and that people are only good because they fear divine retribution.

The religious subtext feels more than a little overwhelming at times. There is a sense that Harsh Realm might be trying to tap into the same worries about the erosion of social values that recurred throughout the first season of Millennium. The teasers to both the first and the last episode of Harsh Realm feature the ruins of a bombed church, perhaps encapsulating the show’s anxieties about a “godless” world. Manus Domini suggests that Santiago is doomed because he dares to set himself up as the ultimate authority.

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This religious subtext helps to firmly root Harsh Realm in the nineties. Other aspects of the show seem almost ahead of their time. In particular, the depiction of the terrorist attack on New York in Camera Obscura and life in Santiago’s republic in Inga Fossa both resonate strongly viewed more than a decade from their original context. There are ways in which Harsh Realm seems to signal the end of the long nineties and herald the arrival of the twenty-first century. There is a sense that Harsh Realm is trapped between the end of one era and the start of another.

While the tease of a central story arc about the assassination of Santiago in the opening nine episodes hints at the serialisation that would become widespread in new media years later, the structure and style of the nine episodes actually produced feel like a product of nineties network television. Similarly, the religious themes of the series root it in the existential ennui of “the unipolar moment”, even as its post-apocalyptic landscape seems to hark forward to the War on Terror. Harsh Realm is as trapped between past and future as its protagonist is between reality and simulation.

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There are other problems. None of the characters in Harsh Realm really “pop” off the screen in the way that the characters from Carter’s other shows do. Hobbes and Pinochio are no Mulder and Scully, feeling more like crudely drawn archetypes rather than fully-formed characters. Frank Black was arguably just as much a heroic archetype as Thomas Hobbes, but Lance Henriksen has an innate gravitas that Scott Bairstow cannot hope to match. Instead, Hobbes just delivers earnest heavy-handed monologues about the themes of a given episode.

There is a sense that Hobbes and Pinochio are not characters so much as vehicles for whatever the plot is in a given week. Hobbes is very much the archetypal Chris Carter romantic protagonist, albeit without Mulder’s snarky sense of humour or Frank Black’s presence. Pinochio seems to be intended as a roguish anti-hero, but the show never seems to strike the balance quite right. Although Pinochio can always be counted upon to provide a humourous quip, the character is almost as angst-driven as Hobbes.

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There is never any doubt that Pinochio is a good man, despite his cynicism. The show invites the audience to pity Pinochio in episodes like Inga Fossa or Manus Domini, with the character even waxing lyrical about the pointlessness of war in Camera Obscura. The show sets Pinochio up as the Han Solo to Hobbes’ Luke Skywalker, but Pinochio never has the same charm and charisma that made Solo such a great supporting character. It feels like a waste of D.B. Sweeney in the role.

In contrast, most of the more interesting characters are sitting on the opposite side of the table. Terry O’Quinn is brilliant as General Omar Santiago, but billing the character in the opening credits feels a little disingenuous; he is technically in fewer episodes than Max Martini. Harsh Realm feels like it might be more fun if it focused on the characters caught in direct orbit of Santiago. Waters is a man who betrayed everything for which he ever stood in service of Santiago; Inga Fossa is an ambiguous player working both sides.

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Sadly, these characters drop out of focus after the opening three episodes and only return to the fold in Cincinnati towards the end of the nine-episode run. Waters pops up briefly in Three Percenters, but he seems to be there to play the role of the heavy and to do what the script cannot allow Hobbes or Pinochio to do while still remaining heroes. More than that, the vitality of Santiago and his supporting cast invites the viewer to wonder why the focus of the show drifts away from the most interesting characters instead of towards them.

There are some other problems. The Ten Thirteen writing staff generally write well around the science-fiction elements of episodes like Kein Ausgang or Three Percenters, but the show does struggle with the sort of arbitrary limitations that the writers have to impose on characters like Florence. After all, it is hard to generate suspense when Florence can magically heal anybody, so scripts like Reunion and Three Percenters strive to offer justifications for why Florence is useless whenever the plot demands that she be useless.

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Of course, it seems a bit churlish to be overly critical of Harsh Realm. The first season of a network drama is rarely great, due to the production constraints imposed upon the creative team and the delicate balancing of interests that must take place behind the scenes. As a rule, the first season of a given show is frequently about establishing the potential for what comes next; about providing a framework upon which the show might build in future seasons. The first season is typically a promise.

Even those shows that do excel in their first seasons typically take a while to find their grooves; after all, the show is new to both the writer and the audience. Unless the production team has the luxury of drafting an entire season ahead of schedule like a novel for television, the journey of a first season is typically about discovery. The second half of the first season of Millennium is a very strong piece of television, but it builds upon the more lackluster first half of the year to provide something intriguing and interesting in its own right.

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Given Harsh Realm was cancelled after only nine episodes, the show is really nothing but potential. The show was taken off the air before anybody other than Chris Carter had written for it; it was cancelled before the production team hit the half-way point in the first season. There is no way to predict what Harsh Realm might have become. Even the mythology of The X-Files didn’t become clear until the very end of the first year. It seems unfair to criticise Harsh Realm for the sorts of failures that many fledgling shows encounter during their development.

There is certainly a lot of potential here. As mentioned above, there is a confidence to the way that Harsh Realm paces its world-building; it feels like even the nine episodes that made it into production have not properly charted this digital frontier. Is there (or was there) a virtual!Hobbes out there? Is there (or was there) a virtual!Santiago? Is it possible for virtual characters to enter the real world? Why did Santiago’s logo appear to Hobbes in Sarajevo? Are the worlds of Harsh Realm recursive, as Reunion implies?

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Interviews with Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz suggest that the production team had not necessarily answered these questions themselves. There are an almost infinite number of twists and turns suggested by the virtual reality setting. Harsh Realm barely has time to establish its ideas, let alone play with them. It is a shame that Harsh Realm seems unlikely to continue on in comic book form like The X-Files and Millennium (and even The Lone Gunmen) have. More than any of the other Ten Thirteen shows, Harsh Realm has unrealised potential.

That is perhaps the tragedy of the piece.

You might be interested in our reviews of Harsh Realm:

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