Saturday, 5 November 2005

American Nightmare: a Review of Profit the Complete Series

"Anyone who thinks controlling people is a science is dead wrong...It's an art." (Jim Profit)

Over the years many movies and TV shows once considered shocking have lost their power to do so. Otto Preminger's The Moon is Blue was considered absolutely scandalous in some quarters when it premiered. Today it is considered laughably mild at best. The TV series All in the Family generated plenty of controversy when it first aired. Now many viewers probably wonder what the controversy was about. This is not the case with the short lived series Profit, which aired on Fox all too briefly in April 1996. The series, now available on DVD from Achor Bay Entertainment, is still as shocking as ever.

Profit was the creation of David Greenwalt and John McNamara. Greenwalt had directed the movies Secret Admirer and Rude Awakening, as well as episodes of The Wonder Years. He had also written episodes of The Wonder Years, Shannon's Deal, and The Commish and produced the TV series The Commish. He would later co-create the series Angel with Joss Whedon. John McNamara had been a producer on the TV series The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. and Lois & Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. He wrote episodes of both of the shows. He would later produce the TV seires Spy Game (another fine series whose run was all too brief). Together the two of them developed Profit, a series that was far ahead of its time (and to some degree still is for network television).

Indeed, Profit was perhaps the only TV show in the history of network television whose protagonist was also its villain. That protagonist was Jim Profit. Born Jimmy Stokowski, Profit has worked his way up from a nightmarish childhood to the position of President of Acquisitions at Gracen and Gracen, a large multinational corporation. Quite simply, he was one of the most dangerous characters ever to be seen on a network television series. Educated, intelligent, charming, and handsome, Profit was also a sociopath. Immensely skilled in the "art (as Profit calls it in one episode)" of manipulating people, Profit would do literally anything to achieve his goals (namely, being the power behind the throne at Gracen and Gracen). Worse yet, Profit is both intelligent and cunning. Although sometimes he is thrwarted, he almost never left behind any clues as to what he had done. And when he did, he usually found a way to cover them up. He was definitely one of the most original characters ever to be seen on a television series.

But then Profit took a fresh approach with all of its characters. This was none truer of Profit's stepmother Bobbi, with whom Profit had a very unusual relationship. Like Profit himself, Bobbi was hardly the most normal person in the world--think Blanche DuBois with a drug habit and a mean streak. Charles "Chaz" Gracen, the current head of the company, still maintained a strong sibling rivalry with his brother Pete Gracen, an achoholic who loved his wife, but cannot relate to her in a meaningful way. As to Pete's wife, Nora, she was a sweet natured ingenue whose cool blonde exterior hid many complexities, not the least of which was the torch she carried for Jim Profit (it seems even on TV shows nice girls fall for bad guys....). Profit's slightly bumbling assistant Gail remained loyal to "Mr. Profit," even though she sometimes pondered the morality of her actions. Profit's charm did not win over everyone on the show and he naturally had his nemeses. Joanne Meltzer was the head of security at Gracen and Gracen and caguht on to Profit's sociopathy almost from the beginning. Like Profit she had emerged from an abusive childhood, but while Profit was devoid of any real ethics or morality, Joanne was perhaps the most morally upstanding person on the show. Another opponent for Profit was lawyer Jeffrey Sykes. Like Profit and Joanne, Sykes had emerged from tragedy. Unlike Profit, Sykes sought to protect peole rather than manipulate them.

These characters were all brought to life by one of the strongest casts ever assembled for a television show. Adrian Pasdar played Profit very subdued--there was no archness or arrogance in his portrayal of Jim Profit. It was as if he was a cool, calculating machine. Kudos must also go to Lisa Darr, Profit's much put upon assistant Gail. There is a touch of screwball comedy in her performance, such as the fact that she seeems to jump whenever the phone rings. Darr's Gail is one of those wonderfully comedic sidekicks that have been a staple of movies for so long. Lisa Blount (it sometimes seems as if every actres on Profit was named "Lisa...:") also delivered an outstanding performance as Profit's stepmother Bobbi. Blount plays Bobbi as bold and flashy, as bombastic as Profit is cool. The rest of the cast, from Lisa Zane as Joanne Meltzer to Keith Szarabajka as Chaz all do wonderfully well. There is not a false note in any of their performances.

Of course, their performances were helped enormously by the well crafted writing of the episodes, nearly all of which were scripted by Greenwalt and McNamara. Not only are the episodes starkly original, but they offer genuine moments of humanity at Gracen and Gracen. Indeed, while many have accused Profit of being a very negative portrayal of corporations, it is actually a rather balanced one. It must be pointed out that while Jim Profit works at Gracen and Gracen, so too do Joanne Meltzer and Jeffrey Sykes. One of the best features of Profit are the monologues in which Profit tells the audience what he intends to do, explains situatoins, and even sometimes expresses his philosophies (an idea taken from Richard III). Not only are these voiceovers a useful means of going over exposition swiftly, they also add insiight into a character who is not the most emotive in the world.

Were the quality of the acting and the writing not enough, Profit was technically superior to other shows as well. Robert Escove, who directed the pilot and the bulk of the episodes, gave Profit the look of a feature film. In the commentaries Greenwalt and McNamara note that Escove thought out every transition from one scene to another--each one is elegant and well handled. And he used a variety of shots, from tracking shots to even the Dutch tilt. Director of Photography Rodney A. Chambers further gave Proft the look of a feature film. Nearly, every frame of the show could almost stand on its own as a still photograph. And while Profit was made on a relatively small budget, it looks very expensive. Indeed, even the computer graphics on Gracen and Gracen and Jim Profit's computers still look advanced today.

Sadly, as good as Profit was, it did not last long. Greenwalt and McNamara thought of the series in 1992, but it would not be until 1996 that it would air. Slated for a seven week run beginning in April 1996, only four episodes (including the two hour pilot) aired on Fox. Although it received great notices from critics, Profit did very poorly in the ratings. The pilot lost viewers by the hour. The succeeding episodes did no better. In the end Fox pulled the plug on the series As to why Profit never did well in the ratings, it is hard to say. Perhaps the show was simply too strong stuff for network audiences of 1996. Perhaps it was just too shocking. Regardless, its final three episodes would not air in the United States until it was featured as part of Trio's "Brilliant But Cancelled." Fortunately, as mentioned above, the entire series has been released on DVD through Anchor Bay Entertainment.

While the DVDs of many TV series leave the viewer somewhat disappointed, with either few or no commentaries and no bonus materials, Profit the Complete Series is guaranteed to satisfy any hardcore fan of the series. No les than four of the episodes (the majority of the series' run) feature commentaries from David Greenwalt, John McNamara, and Adrian Pasdar. The DVD package also contains a featurette entitled Greed Kills, which features interviews with the creators and stars of the show. Greed Kills follows the show from its conception to its untimely demise. The DVD package also comes with a booklet featuring an article by Jo Swerling, in which she outlines the history of the series. With Profit the Complete Series, no corners were cut.

In the aforementioned booklet Jo Swerling comments that Profit was about five or six years ahead of its time. Greenwalt and McNamara say the same thing in the audio commentaries on the DVD. Swerling, Greenwalt, and McNamara all believe that had the show came about at a later time, it would have found a home on HBO or FX. I have to agree with them there, although in my opinion the show is still ahead of its time for network television. Since Profit aired, I can only think of a few shows that have dared go as far as it did--Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel (co-created by Greenwalt), Desperate Housewives, and Lost. One can only wonder if they will maintain their shock value the way Profit has. At any rate, it is definitely a show that any lover of fine television should seek out on DVD.

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