Carter's `Realm' is haunting television

Preview: The newest offering from the creator of `The X-Files' explores a dark, dangerous -- and virtual -- world.

October 08, 1999|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,SUN TELEVISION CRITIC

It has come to this: I am now dreaming about Santiago.

It's dark and wet, and Santiago -- with that fierce, black slash of a pencil mustache -- is chasing me through the woods. A chorus of faceless people in rags -- right out of "Blade Runner" -- is chanting, "Get Santiago, get Santiago, get Santiago or die, fool."

Thanks a lot, Chris Carter, for burning "Harsh Realm" into my brain. Just what I needed, another scary TV dream and more weird video characters running around inside my head.

I am not kidding about the dream. And I have to confess that, as much as I hate it, I am as close to awe as a critic ought to let himself get over Carter's ability to conjure worlds and characters that dazzle our waking eyes as we watch them on the screen and then burrow themselves into the dark realms of the subconscious when we sleep.

"Harsh Realm," Carter's new action series about a soldier fighting for his life inside a virtual reality war game, isn't as cerebral as his brilliant homage to conspiracy theory, "The X-Files," but it hits the screen with a bang and starts exploding inside your head with a much greater impact. "Harsh Realm" doesn't just resonate, it shakes, rattles and rocks the brain.

The premise centers on Army Lt. Thomas Hobbes (Scott Bairstow), a war hero who distinguished himself in combat in 1994 in Sarajevo. We see him in battle and then cut to the present day at an idyllic version of Fort Dix, where Hobbes and his fiancee, Sophie (Samantha Mathis), are making wedding plans. He is about to leave the Army, and they are going to start a family in California.

But, first, there's a knock on the door and two soldiers waiting to take Hobbes to one last assignment -- testing a top-secret virtual reality war game for the Department of Defense. The project and the game are called "Harsh Realm."

Hobbes' orders call for him to pack an overnight bag. He should have packed a Mayflower moving van full of supplies for where he's going.

Hobbes sits down to play the game, but, once inside, he finds himself in another realm -- one in which everyone seems to be trying to kill him, and the word "mercy" does not exist. The dark realm Hobbes enters is a fabulous one, straight out of the mythic imagination. Santiago rules from a cold, steel metropolis, Santiago City. Buses bearing the visage of the dictator and the message, "One people, one nation, one Santiago," roam the streets carrying citizens known as VC.

The VC stands for virtual characters -- they are persons living in "Harsh Realm" who have no memory of their previous identity in our realm. The VC live nicely as long as they bow to the dictator, Santiago.

But there's also an army of ragged people living underground in the woods outside the city who do not bow to Santiago. They, like Hobbes, are the people sent to kill Santiago who have failed and must now live like rats. Hobbes soon joins their ranks.

D.B. Sweeney is terrific as Mike Pinocchio, one of the coolest and most cynical of the revolutionaries. One of the first things he says to Hobbes is that he wants to eat Hobbes' dog. Oh yeah, Hobbes' dog from the real world, Dexter, winds up with him in Harsh Realm. Don't ask me to explain it, please.

Don't ask me to explain the warrior maiden, Florence, with the Sigourney Weaver "Alien" haircut, who handles a machine gun better than Pinocchio and believes Hobbes is "the one," the "savior" who legend says will free the rat people by killing Santiago. This is the stuff of dreams and nightmares, especially Santiago (Terry O'Quinn) in his red beret and totalitarian mania.

"Harsh Realm" plays with so many narratives inside the Great American Story Line: Vietnam (with the VC reference and insurgents living underground in the woods), Christianity (with the promise of a "savior" coming from another world) and the fear of totalitarianism (the ruthless Santiago and the Orwellian Santiago City).

It is incredibly bloody and violent, but then so is America. I wonder what effect it will have on its target audience of teen-age boys and young men, if this 49-year-old critic is running from Santiago in his dreams.

I am concerned about that, but I also think prime-time television is better for the stories Carter tells -- just as ancient Greek culture was better for the scary, bloody stories told by Homer and Aeschylus.

`Love & Money'

Here's a nice series for CBS to debut right after the kid-friendly "Kids Say the Darndest Things" tonight: "Love & Money," a stupid upstairs/downstairs sitcom that features a billionaire's daughter and her building super making love in the shower on her wedding day.

"Mommy, what are they doing in there, and why is everyone laughing?"

CBS is so braindead sometimes you want to scream. "Love & Money" features Paget Brewster as Allison, the billionaire's daughter, and Brian Van Holt as Eamon, the super in her building. She locks herself in the bathroom of her daddy's penthouse apartment on the morning of her wedding, and guess who is called to get her out? Of course, they rekindle their one-summer romance in the shower, and her wedding is off.

The dialogue is mind-numbing, the wall-to-wall stereotypes alarming. If this is the state of the network sitcom, let's swear off making them for awhile -- like, maybe forever.

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