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Harsh Comparison, October 3, 1999 :: Ben Turner's Soapbox

 

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archived soapbox: October 3, 1999
"Harsh Comparison" [permalink]
    keywords: TV
    soapbox #: 207
    written: October 3, 1999
    words: 2164

"Harsh Comparison", an Essay

Please read the following Usenet post links before continuing. They provide background for the show, details that I didn't feel I needed to take the time to write when all these reviews do it so much better...

[This is what an annoying review is like. See Soapbox entitled "Reviews" on stuffy, pompous reviews, for background...]

Let's begin this with a newsgroup header...

Newsgroups: alt.tv.x-files
Subject: The Matrix 2: Harsh Realm
Message-ID: <19991008221120.13183.00000615@ng-bh1.aol.com>

I don't hide that I think FOX is the best network channel on television. I rarely catch myself watching CBS or NBC (virtually all they have going for them is MarketWatch.com, basketball, tennis, and CNBC), let alone ABC. If I'm watching primetime television, it's almost exclusively FOX. This is not to say it's a great network all around -- granted, it's done its part to shut down fan sites for The X-Files and The Simpsons (et al) that did nothing except promote the show even more without taking a single cent away from FOX. It also shows utter trash, like the infamous "When X Attacks!" specials. But this is the stuff that people want to watch. FOX is not as conservative as the other networks, and it actually shows interesting stuff.

The latest great addition to the network is That 70's Show. I didn't expect to like this show, but I'm hooked on it now. FOX has also aired Action, Futurama, Brimstone (now cancelled), The Simpsons, The X-Files, Millennium (now cancelled, too), King of the Hill, Melrose Place, Beverly Hills 90210, America's Most Wanted, the NFL (with Summerall and Madden), Ally McBeal, and MLB. Something for everyone. Just all-around entertaining television. Mostly brainless, but hey, TV is for vegging out. These shows receive fairly successful ratings, but FOX does not produce the front-runners in the Nielsons -- leave that to NBC. What FOX does is pick up the popular shows in syndication, like NYPD Blue and Seinfeld. Such a smart move. They may not get the score initially, but they get the syndication. That monopolizes more of the viewer's time through more of the evening than just primetime.

Last week (I write this on October 12), FOX premiered Chris Carter's (The X-Files, Millennium) new show, Harsh Realm. Did you watch it? Usually I'm all for Chris Carter, but even in the previews, this one didn't look promising. But Carter always has his reasons, and we must remain loyal until he proves us otherwise...

Harsh Realm is a show about a soldier who accepts a top secret program to be inserted into a virtual reality in order to learn how to prevent things like nuclear holocaust. Basically, the army has constructed what people will call a "basement universe" because it's an extremely complex universe that exists only on one or a few very powerful supercomputers. The army invites soldiers to enter it and try to amass the most points. Problem is, one of the soldiers decided he liked it so much inside Harsh Realm (the name of the virtual reality world) that he stayed and set up his own fortress in the name of making the inhabitants' lives safer and better. We don't know yet if he's an honestly good man or if he's seriously hungry for power.

Alright, so I'm watching this show, and it just doesn't get my heart going. I didn't start watching The X-Files until midway through the second season (some episode where we find out Mr. X is part of some army division of men who've been altered to never need sleep) and I wasn't blown away. But it intrigued me, and it handled the story well, so I kept watching. Millennium, however, which I consider to be the best show ever on television, drew me in from the very first episode. It didn't insult your intelligence, it had the perfect protagonist in Lance Henrikson, and it was well-written. It also received poor ratings and was dropped. Maybe if it had more bunnies and daisies and sunbeams...

Harsh Realm neither inspired me or enveloped me. Why? Because I'd seen it before in a little-known movie released early in the year called "The Matrix". Watching Harsh Realm gave me the same feeling as when I watched the previews for Thirteenth Floor right before the showing of The Matrix. And I'm not being a bitch! The similarity was just TOO fucking obvious.

For example, the rebels to Harsh Realm's leader (Omar Santiago) know that The One is coming to save them. The rebels know that they are living in a virtual world (while the other inhabitants have no idea, trapped inside the virtual reality), and when they meet the protagonist (who, by the way, seemed slightly stupid and not very interesting), they know he is The One. He will set them free and save all these trapped people from the inside.

The fucking main character's name is Thomas Hobbes. In The Matrix, you'll remember, Keanu Reeves played Neo, whose real-life name was Thomas A. Anderson. Interviews with the cast of The Matrix reveal that the A. is for Aquinas, a reference to da synergizin' man himself.

And the beds? Hobbes is placed in some big warehouse with hundreds of other people lying down on beds with wires jacked into them. Kind of like a cheaper version of the breathtaking scene when Neo wakes up from his sleep-state to see a whole cliff full of lifepods and great towers with fierce electricity dancing upon them.

Also obvious was the use of techno. Come on, The Matrix tapped into true techno, and Harsh Realm capitalized on it. The Matrix was only really preceded by the Hackers 1 and 2 soundtracks for using a techno soundtrack. The Spawn soundtrack had some techno names on it, but it felt more like the Judgment Night soundtrack than anything else, which is to say it was more rock vs. hiphop. The Matrix soundtrack slammed down mad beats from Meat Beat Manifesto, Propellerheads, and Rob D. The makers of The Matrix wanted to make the movie ultra-cool, and they succeeded with flying colors. Harsh Realm did a flimsy facsimile, using Prodigy's "Climbatize" in a scene that definitely wasn't right for it. Prodigy is, of course, in virtually everyone's collection, and is a weak attempt at honoring The Matrix.

The characters are horrible. Instead of being captivating like watching Mulder and Scully constantly being on the verge of being swept up with each other, or being blown away by the fortitude of Frank Black and the shiftiness of Peter Watts, I find myself wanting the Harsh Realm characters to die. D.B. Sweeney plays some loner called Pinocchio who ends up being forced to help Kea^H^H^HThe One. He takes action only after much prodding, even though he talks the talk. There's also a silent woman (hello, Switch) who hangs around Pinocchio. The protagonist is some uninteresting sod who packs much less of a punch than Lance Henrikson. His wife is played by the park ranger chick from Broken Arrow, this time with blonde hair. She's innocent and docile, going along with whatever the men want her to do. I read this on the alt.tv.millennium newsgroup:

"All I care about is the dog. Poor Dexter gets hauled into the middle of all the action by Sweeney and Bairstow, who naturally form a pirate alliance. Just when you think the cute terrier has been left safely on the sidelines, up he pops in the midst of the carnage, making you actually anxious about somebody in this bang-bang comic book (a form upon which the series is loosely based). Not a good sign when the four-legged mute is more engaging than any of the barking humans."
Diane Werts

...and I couldn't agree more. That's how boring it was. What didn't help matters was that Chris Carter used Lance Henrikson (again, Frank Black), Terry O'Quinn (Peter Watts), and the woman who played the devilspawn Lucy in Millennium. There was also a disembodied voiceover done by Gillian Anderson. It's just distracting to see your favorite actors from another show make their appearance in this one. They were far less powerful this time around. It's a parade of inert characters living in an inert world. There's no sense of power anywhere in this film. Everyone in the film seems to have their balls held tightly by the others.

What's up with this, Chris Carter? Where are you going with your Harsh Realm? Reviewers are already comparing it to Apocalypse Now, The Game, Alice in Wonderland (The Matrix plays off Alice in Wonderland a few times), and other movies. That's not a good way to start, especially coming on the heels of the biggest movie of 1999, The Matrix.

Harsh Realm's saving grace is that it's based on a comic book that actually pre-dates The Matrix. If you go to Harsh Realm's official web site, you'll see it was first published in 1992 or so. The Matrix's comic books were made especially for the movie, the details of which you can read about at The Matrix's official site. However, the story for Harsh Realm was slightly edited for television, and I think maybe at this point was where Carter and his writers crossed it over too far into The Matrix's side of things. The original idea wasn't copied, but the version for the TV show might've been.

[Compare this to Robin Williams' movie that will be released soon, "Jakob the Liar" (the link has a very good review of the film), a story about a Jew victimized by growing Nazi oppression who tries to make life better for those around, until finally tragedy strikes. Sound familiar? Yes, as David Spade would say, we saw it before when it was called "Life is Beautiful". From what I read, though, Jakob the Liar was actually filmed in 1997, before Life is Beautiful. Will Jakob the Liar receive negative press for copying LiB?]

The problem I foresee is the one that plagued Brimstone, another series on FOX (NOT written by Carter and his crew). You knew how it was going to end, from the first pilot episode! Brimstone was about a guy who killed his wife's rapist and went to Hell because he enjoyed killing the guy. But when 100 or so of the worst criminals in Hell escape, he's given the chance to get them all back and thus become mortal again, so he can go back to his wife. I mean, where can you go with this? He captures all the creatures, and then what? Satan is going to release him? Ha. Never during the short-lived course of Brimstone did Peter Horton (the actor who played the main guy) try to break Satan's grip or anything. He passively resisted. Blah.

We know how Harsh Realm will end. Either Santiago, the leader of Harsh Realm, will be killed, or the conspiracy will lead to the army, and Hobbes will have to escape Harsh Realm (using his voodoo momo Matrix powers) and kick some real-world ass. What else is there? Boring...

Seven seasons or so into The X-Files and we still really have no clue how the X-Files will end. We think we know, but all we know is a small part of the picture. Now THAT'S a show. Millennium? We will NEVER know how that show was meant to end. You'd figure it'd end in Apocalypse, but by the end, we wondered if the Apocalypse would only affect certain people... There seemed to be greater forces at work, and you never knew too much. THAT'S how it's done.

I watched Harsh Realm. I'll keep watching it, unless it just continues to be this bad. It's still a refreshing break from other shows on television, plus you can never discount the mind of Chris Carter. We've seen weak pilots before. (Futurama, Simpsons, etc.)

But Harsh Realm will never be The X-Files, and it will never, ever come close to topping Millennium. All I'm hoping for is that it doesn't turn out to just be a derivative of other popular, successful works in an attempt to gain ratings and keep the show running for a longer period of time than the ill-fated Millennium. Prove us wrong, Chris! After all, it's only been one episode.


 
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