Reviews

Profit: The Complete Series

Dan Devine

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

Distributor: Anchor Bay Entertainment
Cast: Adrian Pasdar, Lisa Zane, Keith Szarabajka, Jack Gwaltney, Allison Hossack, Lisa Darr, Lisa Blount, Sherman Augustus
Subtitle: The Complete Series
Network: Fox
First date: 1996
US Release Date: 2005-08-09
Amazon affiliate
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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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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