I don't think I remembered that Harsh Realm ever existed. It certainly wasn't around for long: nine episodes were made (based on a comic book by James D. Hudnall and Andrew Paquette (thanks, Wikipedia); developed by Chris Carter of The X-Files fame) but only three aired before FOX yanked it. And I can't remember what prompted me to move it up my Blockbuster.com queue. Be that as it may, I've got a DVD of it and might as well run through it for you. The pilot was a little confusing and hard to hear - I'm particularly fuzzy on names - but it's got several ringers cast-wise and by the end of the episode, I was ready to watch another one.
E1 begins in war-torn Sarajevo, 1994. A solider, name of Waters, tries to help a little girl and gets pinned down inside a derelict building that U.S. forces are going to bomb the bejeezus out of to clean out the rabble. Waters's buddy, Tom Hobbes, goes in after him and saves his life, Waters's gut shot notwithstanding.
Fast-forward to Fort Dix, New Jersey, "present day," which would be 1999. Tom Hobbes, now a lieutenant, is just a couple weeks away from his discharge and eagerly looking forward to moving to California with his fiancee, Sophie, and dog Dexter (a fairly charismatic Jack Russell terrier), when the military sucks him into one last mission. They've got this virtual reality (hereinafter referred to as "VR") training program that they want him to test. More to the point, they want him to try to defeat the current high scorer, Omar Santiago. Tom puts on the headphones and watches the introductory video - narrated by the extremely recognizable dulcet tones of Gillian Anderson herself!
The video cuts off halfway through. We the viewers know that Tom is now in the VR program but he hasn't figured it out yet. He figures it out pretty quickly when people start shooting at him and blowing buildings up and when he tries to help a wounded guy, the wounded guy fades away in a blur of pixels. He gets himself shot but a mysterious and mute woman finds him and heals him by laying on of hands. Next, Tom finds his home at Fort Dix, but it's destroyed and empty, except for his dog, Dexter. Then Tom hooks up with the cynical and cranky Mike Pinnochio (D.B. Sweeney!) who promises to take him to where Santiago is in exchange for Dexter, whom Pinnochio says he's going to eat.
Pinocchio shows Tom a highly fortified fence around a bustling, well-lit city - Santiago City, because Santiago has hijacked the program and become the defacto despot, controlling all the power and money, and leaving rebels like Pinnochio and others to live in darkness outside the fence - and shows him where to get through. Tom goes in (taking both Dexter and Pinnochio's car keys) and finds his old army buddy, Waters. Waters is now working for Santiago: he too was given the same mission Tom was - to defeat/kill Santiago - but it's no use and now he's working for the guy just to stay alive since there's no way out of Harsh Realm. And also, Waters is married to Tom's girl Sophie, or at least a virtual character (hereinafter "VC") version of her. Tom has a tough time getting it through his head that VC Sophie isn't his actual girl, even when she doesn't know who he is, and runs off with her.
Soon enough Tom and Sophie get arrested by Santiago's men and comes face-to-face with Santiago himself, played by Terry O'Quinn, a/k/a John Locke from Lost. Meanwhile, Pinnochio and the mute mystery woman are at a scruffy bar outside the fence, Pinnochio drinking steadily. She writes on the dusty bar, "It's him," and Pinnochio grunts that he knew it from the moment he saw Tom - and they head into the city to rescue him. As they're all escaping, Waters shoots and kills VC Sophie. Tom is Very Angry about this, but Pinnochio drags him away. Santiago shakes his head and tells Waters that he just made a big mistake as now Tom will never stop coming after them.
The last shot is of Tom in the real world, lying comatose on a gurney, sensors stuck to his head. The camera pulls back and we see that he is not alone hooked up to Harsh Realm: he is in a warehouse-sized building and there are thousands of unconscious Harsh Realmers around him, stretching as far as the eye can see.
26 minutes ago