The Baddest Man on Television
The morality of television characters is frequently decried. We’re told that TV dramas showcase repugnant value systems, that they exalt barbarity and sexual excess and routinely piss on the moral codes that American families follow. This is, of course, bullshit, promulgated by hucksters seeking political power or cash donations (sometimes both) and believed only by idiots. Television defends traditional morality at every opportunity; to pick one example, gay people are accepted, but they’re always portrayed as looking for the same kind of committed love relationships as heterosexuals (even seeking to become parents). It’s extremely rare to see a genuinely bad protagonist on TV. Michael Chiklis, who plays Vic Mackey on The Shield, seemed in the show’s premiere episode to be starring in Bad Lieutenant: The Series, but by midway through the first season’s arc, we were already being mollified by the sight of him as beleaguered father (to an autistic child — how’s that for sympathy-mongering?). As far as I know, there’s only been one show that put a true sociopath at its center — the mid-1990s cult non-hit Profit, newly released on DVD by Anchor Bay.
Jim Profit is one of the most irresistibly watchable characters ever unleashed on network television. His hideous biography is gradually revealed over the course of the two-hour pilot: he was found naked in a cardboard box at Gracen & Gracen Inc. and raised by his insane, neglectful father. As an adult, he works for Gracen & Gracen, rising through the ranks of the Acquisitions division (the perfect environment for such a shark-like being) by seducing, betraying, or framing anyone who gets in his way or has something he wants. Before the pilot ends, he’s killed his father, slept with his stepmother, blackmailed his new assistant into helping him, and pinned his own crimes on his immediate supervisor. As the series progresses, he sends his assistant to the home of a sexual predator who’s been stalking her, in order to gain information, sells a man to the Chinese government, and blackmails a therapist to get access to a co-worker’s sessions and torture her while she’s under hypnosis.
Profit is portrayed by Adrian Pasdar, an actor first spotted in a small role in Top Gun, but who stuck in more minds as Caleb, the hapless protagonist of Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark, a late-80s vampire movie set in the Southwest that did more to revitalize the bloodsucker concept than any film since (it’s still well worth a rental). Pasdar is conventionally handsome, except for a largish scar running from the left corner of his mouth a little way up his jaw line. This injury, which is only visible from certain angles, adds to the darkness of his character — it’s easy to believe that something Profit did once got him slashed, and that the lesson he took away from that incident has become a weapon.
Profit’s not Michael Myers in a power suit, though. The great joy of the show, on re-viewing, lies in the blackness of its humor. Pasdar adds little bits of stage business to scenes — dropping his voice to an obscene caller’s whisper, toying almost foppishly with a pair of black leather gloves from the O.J. collection — that keep them teetering on the brink of hilarity. He moves with Luciferian grace, walking across a room with the same calculation he uses to set up someone else’s downfall. Between the repeated shots of Pasdar’s buff physique (he’s naked with surprising — for the time and for network TV — frequency) and his deadpan voice-over narration, it’s easy to believe that those involved with the movie adaptation of Bret Ellis’s American Psycho were Profit fans.
Of course, the show wouldn’t be nearly as much fun as it is if the other characters were innocents to be victimized and destroyed by Profit, like ducks in a shooting gallery. With one or two exceptions, they’re all flawed, and some of them are nearly as scuzzy as he is. The two Gracen brothers, who run the company, loathe each other — plus, the younger of the two is a paranoid alcoholic and the elder is sleeping with Profit’s stepmother. He doesn’t know who she really is, of course, and when she hooks him on opiates, he doesn’t pick up on that, either: the guy’s blindness is a hilarious tribute to the triumph of family connections over competence. A lawyer hired midway through the show’s run has an agenda of his own, and quickly becomes Profit’s almost-equally ruthless nemesis.
Profit only lasted four episodes, including the two-hour pilot, in its initial 1996 run on FOX. I remember watching it in astonishment; it really was one of those “I can’t believe this got on the air” moments. When it was cancelled without warning, whether due to low ratings or affiliate complaints, it was easy to shrug it off as a fever dream, since nobody else I knew had seen the damn thing. But as the years rolled on, scenes from the show kept popping back into my head. Sure, it was on some level a soap opera: its wild plot twists made it a sort of malevolent counterpoint to the capitalist fantasias of the 1980s (Dynasty, Dallas, Lifestyles Of The Rich & Famous). And its unsubtle sub-theme of family (Jim wants one desperately, even though the only other one shown — the Gracens — is a seething pit of boozing, fistfights, child molestation and same-sex adultery) almost puts it into the mainstream-values-reinforcing territory of traditional TV dramas. (Except for the incest, of course.)
Profit’s creators described the show, when pitching it to all the networks that rejected it, as a TV version of Richard III — the protagonist is a sociopath, and only the audience realizes it. If it was on the air today, perhaps on FOX’s cable channel FX (home to The Shield and Nip/Tuck), Profit would probably be a hit. Too bad it showed up a decade early.