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Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Harsh Realm

I've watched S1 of Game of Thrones. It took me a while, because of the frankly ridiculous wait they made us endure for the DVD release, but I've seen it it. Since I've yet to get through the commentaries though, I'm going to hold off discussing it on here. So I need to find something else to waffle about.

Remember the 90's? Sure you do, the 90's. It seemed that the age of the celebrity showrunner was truly upon us for a little while, there; or at least, celebrity on a niche level. Yes, we sci-fi nerds were lining up to sing the praises of Joe Straczynski, Chris Carter, Shaun Cassidy (whose shows were never as successful, but nevertheless just as good) and toward the end of the decade a young buck by the name of Joss Whedon. Those were the days, eh? These days, aside from JJ Abrams and even he's debatable at this point, the celebrity showrunner seems to be a thing of the past. So what happened to them?

Joe Straczynski followed up his masterwork Babylon 5 with swiftly canceled spin off Crusade and a bunch of variable TV Movies before launching Jeremiah, which received some good reviews and was a decent show, but never really set the world on fire. Then he went off to be a comic book writer, and now seems to spend his time missing deadlines, burning bridges and pissing off fans. Oh well.

After Roar, American Gothic, Hollyweird and Invasion all failed to hit big, Shaun Cassidy abandoned genre stuff and went off to write episodes for a bunch of cop shows (you know the ones) before creating a semi-autobiographical sit-com based on his families career in the music industry. It was quickly canceled. Oh well.

Joss Whedon, when removed from the comforts of the Buffy-Verse, also managed to fail miserably to have another hit show. Firefly, as awesome as it is and as big as it became on DVD, was a swiftly canceled failure on television, while Dollhouse barely scraped a second season before also getting the chop. It remains to be seen whether his increased influence following a success with The Avengers (and it is going to be a success, that much seems clear) will see him try to launch another show, or whether he'll stick with movies. If he does steer clear of the small screen, we could hardly blame him.

Which leaves Chris Carter. The man who gave us mega hit The X-Files never really managed to reach those dizzy heights again. The recent attempt to revive that show as a movie franchise seems to have been a failure; I confess I've yet to make the effort to see it; and his post X attempts on television tell a depressing story of fast dwindling one-hit-wonder-ism. Millennium lasted three seasons, with Carter only really helming it for one of those (and not the best one), The Lone Gunmen didn't manage one full season and Harsh Realm, well...

Harsh Realm is an odd duck, to be fair. Loosely adapted; very loosely, apparently, though I've not read the source material to be sure; from a comic book of the same name, Carter's version sees a soldier sent into a virtual reality simulation of America known as Harsh Realm, which was created as a training program for the US military, to deal with another soldier who has gone rogue inside the simulation. Once he's in, he can't get back out until his mission is accomplished.

The land of Harsh Realm is essentially a kind of post apocalyptic warzone, with the perfect replica of the US having been taken over almost entirely by General Santiago, the aforementioned rogue. His military dictatorship over a fake world would, you would think, be easy enough to shrug off, but there's a whole storyline about how Santiago can come and go from the game as he pleases and how he has plans to destroy the real world so the fake world he controls is all that's left. It's pretty far-fetched, to be fair.

Santiago is played by Terry O'Quinn, so you know he's value for money, but in a wise, and probably necessary move, the character is not seen in several episodes, despite O'Quinn being listed as a regular. As with any show with a regular villain, the risk is that familiarity breeds contempt; better to let the threat hang in the background than to diminish him with defeat on a weekly basis. I understand this, because it's common sense, but the scarcity of O'Quinn still rankles.

The lead character on the show is called Hobbes, or as he prefers to be called; BlandoLead. He's played, in a bold choice by Scott Bairstow, as a mobile coma patient. I say it's a bold choice, but it does leave some of his more emotive scenes to come across as somewhat underwhelming. Which leaves us with the sidekick. The wonderful wonderful sidekick. His name is Pinnochio, and he's great.

Pinnochio, played by the criminally under appreciated D.B Sweeney, is everything that BlandoLead is not. He's a true action anti-hero, always ready with a witty quip, a cocky grin, and a gun full of bullets that he isn't afraid to blast indiscriminately when the pace lets up. Above all, though, he doesn't spend every waking moment bitching and moaning about being in Harsh Realm, which is refreshing to say the least; especially after listening to yet another ridiculously self pitying and melodramatic droning voice over from Blando. Shut UP! (We will learn that there is a very good reason Pinnochio has no great desire to leave the game)

The biggest problem with this show (and by biggest I mean a tiny, pedantic point that once realised can never be set aside) is the nature of death within the game. We are told that Harsh realm was devised as a training program for the military, to help train troops for every, worst case, scenario. now, correct me if I'm wrong, but wouldn't dealing with the after-effects of a nuke or even, for the sake of argument, a prolonged period of conventional warfare, involve dealing with a good number of corpses? Right? Yet, when a Virtual Character dies, they blink out of existence in a kind of staticy, glitch effect. It's obviously meant as a reminder that we are in a computer world, but it completely undermines the reality of the situation; without corpses the simulation is flawed so what's the point? I never got over that, from the pilot onwards. Sloppy, Chris Carter. Very sloppy!

So, yeah, Harsh Realm isn't very good. There is a burgeoning mythology at play, with characters in the real world being all mysterious and shit, but it's not really interesting enough to grip, and it isn't helped by the main 'real world' protagonist, played by Samantha Mathis, accomplishing the astonishing feat of almost being as dull as BlandoLead. Appropriate, I suppose, since they are apparently soul-mates. Even with a better actress in the role though, I doubt to much of worth would have come from this. Audiences agreed and it was pulled, after spectacularly low ratings, just 3 weeks into airing. 9 episodes had been produced, and they are all available on DVD. I'd advise you not buy it.Seriously, don't make my mistake.

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