Thursday, 14 April 2011

Rearview: 'PROFIT'; television's loss

Thursday, 14 April 2011
I've been meaning to watch the feature-length pilot of '90s TV series Profit for some time now, and finally had the opportunity to recently. It passed me by as a teenager, but on reflection has inspired so many shows I enjoy as an adult. Profit is a 1996 Fox series that only ran for eight episodes, but had incredible prescience about a sub-genre of shows that would become hits in the next century. Many of its themes and style have since been popularized by Nip/Tuck and Dexter, making it clear Profit was a decade ahead of its time...

For the uninitiated, Profit concerns eloquent businessman Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar), an employee for the multinational corporation Gracen & Gracen who bribes, extorts, blackmails and even kills to further his career. In the pilot, Profit is promoted following the death of G&G's Vice-President of Acquisitions, and immediately sets about uncovering a secretary's imperceptible embezzlement; information he uses as leverage to ensure her loyalty to him for additional "favours". In many ways this show is a remnant of the greedy '80s; a pastiche on yuppies who'll do anything to get ahead in business. It's actually quite amusing to remember it aired on Fox, which is owned by notorious media tycoon Rupert Murdoch.

"If you want someone to love you, open your heart. If you want someone to be obsessed with you, close it." -- Jim Profit
Profit's basically a more sanitized take on American Psycho's Patrick Bateman. It would have been almost unthinkable for Profit's creators to make their character as psychotic as Bateman on network TV, but in a post-Dexter world I'm certain Profit could be remade with a tougher, stickier mindset. In fact, given the public mood about bankers and high-rollers, who led the world into a financial meltdown, Profit would probably be embraced today, with audiences cheering every time Profit vanquished another white-collar fat cat. So it's a pity this show arrived so prematurely, stuck in a '90s television landscape that wasn't ready for it, and couldn't afford to nurture it over time. It's an Emmy-winning cable series, born in the wrong time and place.

However, I can't be unashamedly gracious towards Profit. It's dated badly in some ways. Stylistically, you'd be forgiven for thinking this was created in 1989, as it lacks the sophistication and polish that The X Files ushered into US TV during the early-'90s. Together with the chintzy music, it occasionally feels like an old episode of Red Shoe Diaries with the sex cut out. It's staid and conventional, almost soap-like, without sharp directorial bite. It's also become unintentionally hilarious through prominent use of an intranet with Virtual Reality Modeling Language (VRML); basically sub-Doom graphics where accessing electronic files requires a 3D trip around a virtual office space via touch-screen. Whenever Profit defeats a business enemy, their grid-like avatar explodes into shards of pixels, as a half-naked Profit watches while eating a leg of chicken, shadows of his pet fish floating across his face! It's a shame this technical element of Profit, together with its outmoded office milieu, looks so amusing to modern eyes. There's an immediate comical quality to Profit now, which it never had when it was first broadcast.

The acting is also surprisingly poor, save for a pre-Heroes Adrian Pasdar, who's wonderfully unnerving and dangerous as Jim Profit, using his matinee idol good looks and pursed lips to give you creeps. He's a psycho Ken Doll come to life, occasionally giving you a jolt by breaking the fourth wall, and indulging in husky voice-over (another Dexter parallel) as he goes about his day. He has no confidant, so extreme voice-over is the unfortunate crutch of the series, deployed rather awkwardly at times. It's almost criminal that he's surrounded by actors that resemble pieces of cardboard, with the exception of Lisa Darr and An Officer & A Gentleman's Lisa Blount (who played Profit's southern stepmom, with whom he had a sexual relationship.) Quite a few scenes in the pilot sink simply because Pasdar's not involved, and the other actors just aren't good enough.

Overall, Profit is a fascinating curiosity for anyone who likes the current anti-hero trend in TV drama, as it's a precursor to shows that became pop-culture hits. It's just a pity the amoral Jim Profit didn't connect with audiences in the same way Dexter Morgan managed to a decade later, perhaps because the closest thing to a TV anti-hero in 1996 was still Dallas' J.R Ewing. A corporate shark was just too morally slippery back then; in the same year, Millennium and Profiler's investigators were on network TV trying to catch sociopaths and serial-killers, which was more conformist.

"When the smoke clears, and you get right down to it, only three things really matter: your faith, your fortitude, and your family. Good night." -- Jim Profit
written by John McNamara, David Greenwalt, John Shirley & W.K Scott Meyer / 1996 / Fox