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"Harsh Realm"

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Which I can't say about Harsh Realm (Fridays, starting October 8; 9 to 10 p.m.; Fox), the new Chris Carter virtual-reality action series. While it promises in the long run to be more interesting than the Hollywood movie it most resembles, The Matrix -- and may even attract the same cult audience of surfers, hackers, digitheads, designer-druggies, nipple-ringsters, technopop mall rats, and kung fu biker nerds -- it's no threat at all to the cyberpunk eminence of William Gibson, Pat Cadigan, or Neal Stephanson. Like everybody else who never leaves home, deep down in my binary code and microsofties I long to leap tall buildings in black leather and cool mirror shades. But I couldn't bring myself to care whether Keanu Reeves in The Matrix was "The One" who, by brain-jack and chopsocky, would save Homo sap from floppy disks with their own agenda, and I'm not sure I'll wait around to see if Army vet Scott Bairstow (Party of Five) ever emerges from Harsh Realm's Cold War VR computer game -- a sort of grunge Dune and fascistic facsimile state where Terry O'Quinn (Millennium) is the Kurtz in totalitarian charge, D. B. Sweeney is the Che Guevara in guerrilla opposition, Samantha Mathis can't decide if she's alive or dead, and, on the whole, Scott Bairstow would rather be back in Sarajevo.

In this comic-book Conrad, the characters have names like Hobbes (nasty, brutish, short) and Pinocchio (the Pentagon lies to us). The action is F/X-murky, like a Gothic music video. The dialogue is Captain Midnight-Secret Decoder Ring- profound: "Santiago has hijacked the whole damn program!" And among the many things to have vanished into cyberspace is Chris Carter's sense of humor, which has always redeemed The X-Files whenever it threatens to go apocalyptic woo-woo. We should have known this would happen during the first season of Millennium, when Megan Gallagher never smiled and Lance Hendrikson couldn't.


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