A TV show with an interesting premise, crisp writing, darkly compelling protagonist, and loads of critical praise usually generates thoughts of Emmys, Golden Globes, and long-haul success. Instead, Profit was canned after four episodes.
Profit: The Complete Series compiles the eight-episode run of one of television’s most bizarre disappointments. The sinister boardroom drama created by John McNamara (Fastlane) and David Greenwalt (Angel) drew raves for its depiction of soulless businessman Jim Profit (Adrian Pasdar). But its lack of viewers led to its sucker-punch cancellation in the middle of the 1996 fall season. The set recaps the show from pre-production to post-mortem, with creators and stars patting themselves on the backs and pondering what the hell went wrong. In their eyes, they did everything right and the audience just didn’t “get it.” In mine, they never gave the audience much reason to try.
In their somewhat daunting two-hour commentary track for the series pilot, Greenwalt and McNamara emphasize that they never intended to demonize capitalism or the corporate culture of ’90s America. Rather, they wanted to explore the nastier bits of the “human condition,” and they decided (after flirtations with making Profit a doctor or lawyer) that focus on a multinational corporation would offer the best shot at getting their hands dirty.
If all this sounds familiar, it’s probably because the choice to trail a sociopath from boardroom to back alley parallels ground Bret Easton Ellis covered in American Psycho (1991). We meet Profit on his first day as a junior VP in the acquisitions wing of Gracen & Gracen. His job is simple: protect G&G’s reputation and make its shareholders stacks of money every day, by any means necessary. Profit’s extreme utilitarian worldview enables him to act without conscience or prejudice — he lies, cheats, steals, blackmails, and even murders to drive the corporation’s stock and his career through the roof, always covering his tracks well enough to keep out of cuffs.
(It’s worth noting that Profit‘s creators never mention Ellis’ novel in any of the set’s numerous commentaries and interviews. In fact, on the third disc’s making-of featurette, Greenwalt and McNamara claim they conceived the show in the late ’80s, and assert that the main influence was Shakespeare’s Richard III, which McNamara loved because the titular character tells the audience all the heinous things he’s going to do and then actually does them. He felt that the madman “opening up” to the crowd resonated with viewers.)
As Greenwalt, McNamara, and producer Jo Swerling all point out, Profit aired before cable networks pushed the envelope with edgy, explicit fare like The Sopranos. In 1996, a show whose main character pursues an incestuous relationship with his stepmother (it was supposed to be his birth mother, but even Fox couldn’t let that happen) and induces a fatal heart attack in his father — in the pilot — had no precedent. It’s no shock for the first of anything to fall short.
Still, it’s too easy to say that Profit was “ahead of its time.” It’s not like promiscuity, blackmail, and violence were foreign concepts in the mid-’90s; Melrose Place relied on the first two, and Congressional rumblings about the negative effect of the third in games like Doom and Quake were already being televised. Why did we hyper-consume those products and hang Profit out to dry?
The creators suggest that it was because people couldn’t deal with an evil and amoral primetime “hero.” While that may be partially true, it’s simplistic. Profit was so dynamic and so perfectly portrayed that he made you feel a little sick for acknowledging the dirty business inside your own head, but at the same time convinced you that you were somehow more human for its presence. (I consider myself a well-adjusted guy, and by the fourth episode, I was rooting for Profit to murder aforementioned step-MILF Bobbi, played by Lisa Blount, if only to put an end to her awful Southern accent.) Besides, we were only three years away from Tony Soprano becoming the poster child for small-screen artistry. Did the culture really swing that drastically from abhorrence to acceptance between 1996 and 1999?
I think the show’s failure lies in a major difference between Psycho and Profit. While Bateman remains a blank slate (you can infer whatever personal or sociological explanation you want for his behavior), the creators grant a wide-angle insight into Profit’s profound psychological problems in the pilot. This becomes something of an apologetic framework for all that comes afterward: the man who becomes Jim Profit was once a boy named Jimmy Stakowski who was horribly abused throughout his childhood. Details of the abuse are often alluded to but rarely explicitly stated, with the exception of one major mindfuck: Jimmy’s father made him live inside a cardboard box with a small cutout facing directly into a television set that was his only window to the outside world. There he sat, mostly ignored, utterly absorbed by the characters he saw on TV. Years later, after abandoning his former identity and using the lessons he learned to become a businessman, Profit still goes to sleep at night in that same box, hidden away behind the bookshelves in his high-rise apartment.
Credit McNamara and Greenwalt for coming up with a major-league hook for their pilot episode, a completely unexpected turn that makes you shake your head and say, “Wait, what?” But this great twist submarines the entire point of the first-person connection between Profit and the audience. Now, we’re not just rooting for him to see if he can really come out unscathed, like Richard. We also feel kind of sorry for Profit because he’s basically playing the hand he was dealt. The pop psychologist in any audience member won’t have much trouble drawing a connection between the messed-up childhood and the evil the man does, which eliminates the jarring detachment of Bateman’s inexplicable sociopath.
The rest of the series was destined to be little more than a variation on that theme. Now, that might not be why most of America tuned out in the first place, but it’s a damn good reason not to return now. Great stories always keep the audience wanting more; Profit gave the audience everything it wanted in the first episode, then failed to come up with anything of interest to bring them back. Revisiting the interviews and watching Greenwalt and McNamara complain about Fox giving up on the show too soon, I can’t help but disagree. If anything, four episodes was probably three too many.