Test Pilot #36: Profit
Debut date: April 8, 1996
Series legacy: Known for its dark, complicated story and even darker lead character; thought to be ahead of its time
Welcome back to Test Pilot guys and gals! With that extra-special Joss Whedon Theme Week behind us, it’s time to fall back into the typical, but still lovely rhythms of the feature. Today, we continue our fun exploration of one television’s most discussed subjects: One-season wonders.
Most series crash and burn before a prospective second season, but there are some that stick in our mind many years after cancellation. There is a large fascination with television series that only manage to produce a single season (often at a short order at that) before they are chopped down by “the man.” We are compelled by the possibilities and the what could have been for programs that projected all sorts of promise and upside but were never actually able to cash in on either. This theme hopes to explore some of the most celebrated one-season wonders and consider what, exactly, made audiences latch on to them so spectacularly.
Today’s file is a curious one. FOX’s Profit debuted all the way back in 1996 and caused all sorts of controversy. Many viewers, particularly in the Bible Belt, reportedly called their local affiliates to complain about the amoral lead character, calling him “Satan in a Suit.” A few of these affiliates then threatened to pull the series. Even the stuffy business community was upset that the series portrayed them in such a negative light.*Throw in low ratings and an inability to keep much of the audience from its lead-in Melrose Place (because those two series go together beautifully), and Profit was canceled after just a handful of airings. Nine episodes were produced.
*How hilarious is that? 16 years later, Profit’s portrayal of business and boardroom deals is both realistic and probably still tame. We were so naïve in the 1990s.
Thanks to a DVD release in the middle of the last decade (and likely star Adrian Pasdar’s big turn on Heroes), Profit became one of those series that consistently pops up on any “One-season wonder” or “Cancelled too soon” lists that folks like to do from time to time. It is a series that is not as universally beloved or admired like our last subjects, Freaks and Geeks or Undeclared, but Profit certainly gives the audience a lot to think about – and thus, a lot to talk about.
Joining me today is Jamie Wotton. Never shying away from a form of entertainment, Jamie is open to watching almost everything and has been known to frequently discuss series from Mad Men to iCarly, all while keeping himself firmly in the realm of Joss Whedon and his colleagues. He also appreciates the art of comedy, as well being loosely connected apart to the anime fandom. You can follow Jamie on Twitter. Jamie, take it away:
From David Greenwalt (of Buffy and Angel) and John McNamara (of Television™), comes Profit, a weird slick and slimy television series that aired on FOX in the year of 1996. Starring Adrian Pasdar as Jim Profit, the two-hour pilot set in the world of multinational corporate businesses is almost Revenge if it was set in high-end corporations instead of the Hamptons. Indeed, the writing and almost Shakespearean trappings seem to be flooded throughout. It’s dark and corrupt and even to bookend the pilot, Profit breaks the forth wall and speaks right to us. It is phenomenal, it is crazy and I really, really don’t understand it.
Throughout the pilot, we’re introduced to a large sprawling cast who is shown along with snide remarks from the lead character, Jim Profit. Functionally, this is not a whole lot different to watching the first episode of Game of Thrones just with Littlefinger commenting upon the characters psychosis whenever one stepped into shot. Confusing, right? However, with Game of Thrones, you can be almost certain that everyone is going to play a permanent part in the series narrative; it’s hard to miss it’s based on a famous book series and of course, it comes from HBO. Going in, you know to expect long-form storytelling and character arcs. It would be an awkward way to frame everyone up – (sidebar: it’s like when that jerky friend of yours introduces you to 50 people at a party. Formalities be damned, it’s fucking horrible) – but at least you know you’re going to see these people again. One of the issues I had with Profit is that some of these characters felt temporary. It’s hard enough to get one to align with a protagonist in one episode, but to understand what makes the ensemble as well as the guest stars tick is a near-impossibility.
I also find it interesting that this comes from the little network that cooked up a storm with the juicy and filmic supernatural series The X-Files and threw up the likes of Ashton Kutcher and Mila Kunis two seasons later in That ‘70’s Show. I shouldn’t be surprised; to this day, risk-taking is built into FOX’s DNA, but it’s rare for such an almost formless miss to go to air. Perhaps it aired because it was too expensive – it did screen in the Spring after all – but from it to go from script to pilot to series is almost extraordinary. Lone Star, a similarly cancelled series from FOX last year made a similar ambiguous deal with the audience as Profit did – it asks them to follow the MORALLY GREY CABLE DRAMA PROTAGONIST and perhaps representative of the time allowed to build-audiences in today’s world, Lone Star was taken off the air. But that series aimed to be something different in the CSI landscape, it comes after the stories of Tony Soprano and Vic Mackey.
But Profit didn’t.
It’s certainly telling a different type of narrative and not drawn on being like anything else on the medium, but I can’t work out who the audience was meant to be. It’s not the default young-skewing
FOX series, it’s too bizarre for CBS’ over-49’s and the largest demo is consumed by those watching NBC sitcoms. It’s absolutely my own neurosis, but this pilot played like Profit was a series for no one, arguably by no one just left me so cold.
With a lot of one-season wonders, you can argue and twist that marketing went wrong or there’s at least a glimmer of a TV series there. Firefly, Wonderfalls – these are fully-formed [network] television series. They didn’t connect or one reason or another, but they have a pitch or a structure to them an ideology that people would recognize. As obvious from the former’s pilot, there is the central crew who hang out and then they get gigs to take them from one part of the ‘verse to another all for some credits. It’s the series. There are threads to do with the Alliance and nods toward Shepherd Book’s past, but the story on an episode-to-episode was created by external pressures that pushed on the crew. Now, it’s weird – there are horses, spaceships, swearing in Mandarin and other such things, but the stories were simple and understandable. You can build a long-running series around it. Profit, however, seems to differ in this regard. There are incredibly surreal moments (such as the aforementioned Malcolm In The Middle-like episode bookends) and the pilot mostly consists of setting up a world with a bunch of players instead of setting up a series. It doesn’t do anything deserving of its lengthy 90 minute (!!!) pilot running time.
I’ve tried to avoid the “Ahead Of Its Time” argument because although it plays with the darker themes and characters of FX and HBO brand of series I do not really think that it’s necessarily true if we are to believe that TV is an audio/visual medium. In 1996, The-X-Files had been on for a few years and even today, the series actually still holds up aesthetically, and Profit appears looking and sounding like it’s straight out of the 1980s. The pilot lacks the style and flare of the new generation of network television. I think the series could theoretically be updated and be more relevant in the time of Occupy, but I wouldn’t want it. I think the weird alternate universe 1996 is what makes the series special. I need the clangy score; the hilarious philosophical quotes that sound lifted straight from the wordsmiths over at One Tree Hill; and not to mention the bizarre camera glances from Adrian Pasdar. Knowing Adrian Pasdar, and I like to think I know Adrian Pasdar – he wouldn’t have it any other way. And neither would I.
And now, my thoughts on Profit:
I’m still young, but I’d like to think that I’ve seen a lot of television in my short time on this rock. In all my television viewing, Profit might be one of the two or three weirdest scripted programs that I have ever seen. There’s absolutely no way that this pilot would make it to air on FOX in 2012, which makes it even more insane to think that the network somehow let five hours slip onto the airwaves nearly two decades ago.* This two-hour pilot episode features a half-dozen elements that almost automatically make it difficult to imagine on FOX in 1996 or anytime, really: Profit is a supremely evil, manipulative son of a bitch that lacks any sympathetic tendencies; All the other characters seem similarly awful and miserable; The script, by David Greenwalt and John McNamara, throws the audience in the deep-end and never provides much of a life preserver; Profit has a sexual relationship with his step-mother;** The story has a methodical, but still oddly rapid pace that is sometimes difficult to keep up with; And oh yeah, he randomly talks directly to the camera at times, in that creepy Adrian Pasdar voice that can haunt your dreams.
*It’s probably easy to make some comparisons to Lone Star, but that series’ protagonist is dramatically more sympathetic and, of course, inherently good (or at least wants to be). Jim Profit has no illusions about his evil behavior and what he will or won’t do to climb that corporate ladder.
**Research tells me that the writers originally wanted the character to be his real birth-mother, which is even more demented. This story is fantastically twisted.
Those are just the surface elements that keep Profit from being an easy viewing experience. Dig deeper and we find allusions to costume dramas and a purposeful deconstruction of the sort of 1980s and early 1990s Wall Street types that love to shout about how good greed can be. Profit is surreal, it is uncomfortable to watch at times and so of course it is also so fully compelling as well. Jamie’s reference to ABC’s Revenge is spot-on, but again, what sets this old FOX series apart is how unapologetic it is in regards to its lead character’s morality.* We know that Emily/Amanda is eventually going to rethink her full-court press of Revenge (in some ways, she’s had to course-correct already). But even after two hours, it doesn’t appear that Jim Profit is capable of making the emotional connections that Emily/Amanda does, and he’s certainly not “good, but flawed” like her. Those riled up people in the Midwest weren’t too far off when they called Jim Profit Satan in a Suit.
*I made this comment on Twitter last night, but the two series also differ in that Jim Profit carries out his plots against an entire executive board in one episode, whereas Emily/Amanda is taking a much more methodical, slower approach to her revenging. The consequences of Jim’s actions in the pilot aren’t given enough time to develop, or to have a true lasting impact quite like Emily/Amanda’s. In that regard, Profit plays like a slightly-edited-down film, which is a fine way to approach a pilot, but also leaves me curious as to how the rest of the episodes develop.
Another popular culture touchstone I immediately thought of while watching this pilot was American Psycho and I’m surprised that Profit didn’t’ reach the same kind of cult adoration that the Christian Bale-starring film has. Both texts (and Bret Easton Ellis’ novel, of course) are very interested in poking holes in the constructed identity of the power suit-wearing corporate climber, the kind of people we sort of looked up to at a certain point and time. American Psycho is even more surrealist and winking than Profit, but the series’ more pointed approach to its lead character’s make-up is initially more engaging. Bale’s Patrick Bateman is more aware of the vapid nature of his existence and takes to murdering as a way to get a true rush, whereas Jim Profit is both aware and ready to embrace the corporate culture. He doesn’t want to escape, in fact, he wants to hide within it and get away from what appears to be an extremely damaged childhood.
Part of these differences come from the deeper complexity that comes with constructing a television character versus one for a film or novel, but I also think Profit ultimately has more to say about late 20th century corporate culture anyway. While Profit is clearly the worst offender in this universe, this pilot makes great effort to portray the rest of G&G’s top executives as poor representatives of the human race as well. They are shifty, job-obsessed blank spots in power suits. No personality. No control. And really, not much morality either. Profit might be the manifestation of pure evil, but he’s also a purer reflection of what’s really inside the people he’s trying to take down on his way to the top. All these spineless executives are capable of the things that Profit does in this pilot – blackmail, adultery, extortion, bribery, etc. – but he’s smart enough and ambitious enough to actually pull the trigger. He has no pretentious about who he is and what he wants. They’re just pretending.
On that note, I don’t know if it was purposeful or not, but Profit’s casting choices help evoke its thematic interests quite well. Adrian Pasdar is engaging performer, but he also benefits greatly from Profit’s detached, sometimes seemingly awkward, but calculating image. While Pasdar brings some depth to the role, he also looks tremendous in a suit and therefore pulls off the character’s inherent lack of depth beautifully. And of course, his voice is perfect for the pilot’s uncomfortable use of voiceover work. But around Pasdar, Profit is filled with a bunch of white, milquetoast performers who bring very little energy or spark to the proceedings. I recognized no one else on this cast. But like I said, I’d be willing to bet that Greenwalt, McNamara and executive producer Stephen J. Cannell guided the casting in that way for a reason. The actors fit their characters very well then, as they serve to point out how electric and compelling Pasdar/Profit is.
Profit’s strength lies in its ability to weave in a number of disparate themes with relative ease. The corporate culture commentary is obvious, but there are some interesting things going on with “rags to riches” and American Dream narratives as well. Detaching his rise from true context, Profit is the kind of American we like to celebrate: He overcame a troubled childhood (in the Midwest, of course) to become a powerful man in the business world. But by the end of the pilot, we know that Profit has overcome these odds and reached these heights through evil means, from a sexually manipulative relationship with his step mother to attempted murder (he tried to burn his father alive as a young man) to all the sketchy business-related things we see him do. This is a guy who was raised in a cardboard box and is now a VP corporate titan, he just happened to get there through all the wrong ways.
I’d also suggest there’s some sort of commentary about television and the media bouncing around in Profit’s DNA as well. His aforementioned youth, spent in that cardboard box raised on television, caused Profit to grow up and despise the medium. And yet, we have to imagine that he learned many things (including “bad” things) from the ole’ idiot box. This suggests that Profit both loves and resents the television for turning him into what he is. Ultimately then, Profit turns our typically-held beliefs about the American Dream or corporate hierarchies on their constructed heads, but reinforces our fears about the media. That’s an odd combination.
That odd combination of thematic interests pairs well with a dark, demented lead character in theory, but I think the execution is a bit overwhelming in the Profit pilot episode. Most of the discourse about Profit focuses on how innovative or before its time the series was and while I don’t disagree with those assertions in most regards, I also think the series might get a little too much credit. Don’t get me wrong: Profit was ahead of its time and it did some things that audiences didn’t expect in 1996. Nevertheless, after watching this pilot, I get the indication that Profit, well, tried too hard. The thematic exploration is so dark and so dense and Jim Profit is so inherently awful, it is truly difficult to imagine anyone, outside of die-hard television fans, wanting to watch this series.
Sure, the series is something of a precursor to The Sopranos, The Shield and all the great television with the antihero protagonist that came after, but it also struggles in fundamental ways where those series succeeded. Tony Soprano is a pretty terrible person, but his flaws are visible and in most regards, relatable. The audience might not admire or strive to be Tony, but they can at least understand his issues and complexities. Profit doesn’t give you that chance. It asks you to follow someone who has complexity, but those additional layers apparently lead to more evil. Jim Profit might be more interesting than Tony Soprano at first, but he’s also sort of impenetrable. You don’t really care about him, one way or another.
Post-Profit antihero-led programs knew that you needed an element of sympathy and/or empathy at play. That’s why most of the great series led by antiheroes have families. Tony has a family. Vic Mackey has a family. Walter White has a family. By the end of the pilot, we’ve learned that Jim Profit tried to kill his father and then finished the job and he used to bang his step-mother. Those aren’t the kinds of familial bonds that create real, palpable tension and stakes. Profit hopes you’ll care more about watching its lead character take down relatively similar people, which isn’t untrue, but not enough to keep the story — or the lead character — engaging in the long run.
Ultimately then, Profit exists more as a curious experiment for amorality and the antihero construction on television. It tried to do too much, too quickly and although the pilot compelled me, it didn’t exactly pull me in like so many of the series it supposedly impacted did. I’m not surprised it got canceled, at all.
Conclusions on legacy: Perhaps moderately overrated in terms of its lasting impact, but still a very curious experiment nonetheless