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.

Friday, 4 November 2005

The King Kong Trailer

"And the prophet said: And lo, the beast looked upon the face of beauty. And it stayed its hand from killing. And from that day it was as one dead."


According to the original King Kong, that quote is an old Arabic proverb. I rather suspect it was just a creation of screenwriters Merian C. Cooper, Edgar Wallace, James Ashmore Creelman and Ruth Rose, but it is a great quote nonetheless. Indeed, it is a great quote from one of the greatest movies of all time. Next month a remake of that classic is due to come out, directed by one of my favourite directors nonetheless.

I was a fan of Peter Jackson even before The Lord of the Rings trilogy. Both Heavenly Creatures and The Frighteners rank among my favourite films. I have been looking forward to King Kong for a long time. For that reason I was very happy to see the trailer yesterday. The film looks just incredible, with many of the scene very close to the original. What's more is that it looks like Jackson has stayed true to the spirit of the original movie. Ultimately, King Kong is not about a giant ape rampaging through New York City. Instead, it is one of the most tragic love stories in the histories of film. After seeing the trailer, I think Peter Jackson will indeed do it justice.

Thursday, 3 November 2005

Some Guys Have All the Luck

This is one of those times when a song is constantly going through my head, in this case "Some Guys Have All the Luck." The song was originally performed by The Persuaders and released in 1973. It made Billboard's Soul charts, but did not make the Pop charts. Nonetheless, it was later remade by Rod Stewart for his Camouflage album, released in 1984, and released as one of the singles from that album. I daresay the Rod Stewart version is the better known of the two. Indeed, I have never heard The Persuaders' version.

Anyhow, I thought I would do something different today and engage in an analysis of the lyrics to the song.

Chorus:
Some guys have all the luck
Some guys have all the pain
Some guys get all the breaks
Some guys do nothing but complain

The chorus is very basic and posits a very simple concept. Basically, some guys get all the advantages in life and love, while others do not. And while the song is unabashedly romantic (as will be seen later), the chorus does seem to be a bit cynical. After all, most romantics would like to think that the nothing can stand in the way of true love, that the right guy and right girl will get together no matter what, that eventually every Miss Right will find a Mister Right. In movies from The Apartment to When Harry Met Sally, the couples get together through sheer perserverance and the strength of true love. On the other hand, the chorus to "Some Guys Have All the Luck" expresses an entirely different idea, that it is all a matter of luck. Of course, with that idea comes the idea that the less worthy guy could actually win the girl in the end simply out of sheer luck.

Alone in a crowd on a bus after work
And I'm dreaming
The guy next to me has a girl in his arms
My arms are empty
How does it feel when the girl next to you
Says she loves you
It seem so unfair when there's love everywhere
But there's none for me

From the first stanza we only learn a little bit about "our hero's" situation. He is quite apparently lonely and unattached, yet he longs to have a rellationship with someone. He could be anyone from a successful businessman to the Star Trek nerd living in his mom's basement. Indeed, there is no indication that he ever has been in love, although he does long for it. One thing is clear, despite his cynicism about finding love (it all comes down to love), he would seem to be a romantic, in that he places a good deal of importance in having a woman to love.

(chorus)

Someone to take on a walk by the lake
Lord let it be me
Someone who's shy
Someone who'll cry at sad movies
I know I would die if I ever found out
She was fooling me
You're just a dream and as real as it seems
I ain't that lucky

In the second stanza things become more clear. The hero of the song continues to long for someone he can love, he someone he can spend time with and enjoy things with. The last two lines of the second stanza makes it clear, however, that it is not a case of not having found someone to love. He is in a situation far worse than simply being lonely and wanting a girlfriend--he is already in love and apparently has little chance of winning her (that is, he "aint that lucky"). Indeed, from the line "Youre just a dream..." it is clear that he is addressing the song to the girl of his dreams.

(chorus)

All of my friends have a ring on their finger
They have someone
Someone to care for them it ain't fair
I got no one
The car overheated
I called up and pleaded
There's help on the way
I called you collect you didn't accept
You had nothing to say

In the third stanza the hero of the song once more bemoans the fact that he does not have someone in his life. All of his friends are married and he doesn't even have a girlfriend. The situation also becomes more clear. Not only has "our hero" found someone to love, but it is quite obvious that "our hero" had had a relationship with the woman he loves. When his car overheats, he calls her collect (I am guessing from a pay phone at a gas station or something). To even call the girl of his dream, he had to have had her phone number. This could indicate that at one point he did indeed have the woman of his dreams. How he lost her we are never told, but given the chorus ("Some guys have all the luck..."), it seems possible he lost her to a rival. I should point out that his car overheating continues the theme of the hero of the song being a Sad Sack with no luck whatsoever.

(chorus)

But if you were here with me
I'd feel so happy I could cry
You are so dear to me
I just can't let you say goodbye

The second chorus makes it clear that at some point he must have won and then lost the woman he loves. After all, how could she tell him "Goodbye" unless they were in some sort of relationship? To a degree, the second chorus also breaks away from the theme of some guys having all the luck. In stating that he can't let her say "Goodbye," the hero of the song is quite obviously expressing a determination to win her back. It seems then that he either believes he will get lucky or, more likely, that he believes that in the end perserverance and the power of love can even overcome bad luck. Ultimately, the song is not about having someone to love, but about having the one he loves. One gets the feeling that not just any girl will do.

Anyhow, I count "Some Guys Have All the Luck" among my favourite songs. I have never heard The Persuaders' version, although I did have the Rod Stewart version on vinyl. To me it is a sad song that expresses a line of thought that all guys have probably had at some point. And, sadly, I do have reason to identify with it.

Sunday, 30 October 2005

Dracula on Film

Tomorrow eveining is Halloween, so I thought it would be fitting to talk about a sujbect pertinent to that holiday, namely the character known as Dracula as he has appeared on film. I am not going to discuss every single movie in which he has appeared, as that would take an entire book. But I will discuss the major releases.

It was in 1897 that Dracula by Bram Stoker was first published. The novel became a bestseller both in Britain and the United States. The novel was successful enough that it eventually made it to the stage. Stoker himself had hoped to bring the novel to the stage, but it would not be until after his death that Hamilton Deane would successfully adapt the book as a play. Debuting in London in 1924, the play was a success. Nonetheless, when it came to the United States in 1927 it was rewritten by American playwright John L. Balderston. Cast in the lead role in the American production was an actor named Bela Lugosi.

The play would have an enormous impact in shaping the public view of Dracula for years and was pivotal in Dracula as conceived in the Universal horror movies. But a movie adaptation of the play would not be the first film to feature Dracula. Instead it would be German director F.W. Murnau who would bring the legendary vampire to the big screen, although he had to skirt the law to do it. Released in 1922, Nosferatu was a very loose adaptation of the book featuring a vampire named Count Orlock (more or less Dracula under another name). It was also one of the greatest films ever based on the novel. Shot in striking black and white and influenced by both the Expressionist and Romantic Movements in art, the movie is simple, yet stunning to look at. It is also a fairly creepy movie. Rats seem to follow Orlok everywhere. In fact, Orlok's image is one of the creepiest in film history. Possessing pointed ears, fangs, and long fingernails, Orlok is not the romantic figure that Dracula would be portrayed as in later films. In creating Nosferatu Murnau openly plagiarised the novel Dracula, the movie following the plot of the book somewhat roughly. Bram Stoker's widow realised this and sued. She won the right to have all prints destroyed. Fortunately for horror fans everywhere, some prints survived.

Of course, the most famous film about Dracula is Universal's movie of the same name, released in 1931. The movie was based on Hamilton Deane and John L. Balderston's play and even featured the star of the American production, Bela Lugosi. It proved to be one of the biggest box office draws of 1931 and started the entire cycle of horor films in the Thirites. Many today still regard it as a classic. As for myself, I am not so sure it has stood the test of time. It shows its stage origins all too well, often seeming like a play simply shot on film. This makes the movie somewhat static. There are times when very little action is taking place and times when the movie is rather talky. And while Bela Lugosi would forever become identified with the role, I don't think he did a terribly good job with it. At times he seems to overact to the point that the movie comes off as camp. This is particularly noticeable to me in the scene in which he tries to hypnotise Van Helsing. Regardless, Dracula would appear in many films produced by Universal over the years, from Son of Dracula to Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein.

It was in 1958 that the next signficant Dracula film was released. Hammer Films had a huge success with their loose adaptation of Frankenstein. For their follow up they did a loose adaptation of Dracula. Called Dracula in Britiain and The Horror of Dracula in the United States, it was perhaps the first Dracula film shot in colour. What's more, it was the first Dracula film to bring sexuality to the forefront. As Count Dracula, Christopher Lee was simultaneously commanding and charming. One gets the feeling that he did not hynotise his female victims so much as overpower them with sheer animal magentism. Indeed, it features one of the sexiest scenes in a vampire film, one in which Dracula enters Lucy's bedroom. It was also one of the earliest vampire films in which blood is actually shown. While minimal by today's standards, the little splatters of blood in the 1958 version of Dracula were considered downright gory at the time. It is also one of the first films, if not the first, in which a vampire is burned by a crucifix. Despite its innovations, perhaps the movie's strongest point is its cast. Besides Christopher Lee as Dracula, there was Peter Cushing as Prof. Van Helsing. Intelligent, rational, calm, and collected, he is easily a match for the ancient vampire. Hammer would make many more Dracula films over the years, all but two starring Christopher Lee.

While Hammer's Dracula brought sexuality to the forefront, the 1979 Universal version of Dracula made it the centrepiece of the movie. In 1977 a new stage version of Dracula opened on Broadway, this time featuring Frank Langella as the count. This play differed from others in making the Count an openly sexual creature. The 1979 movie followed the play's lead. The film makes it clear that Dracula is irresistable to women. When Dracula makes his first appearance in the film, both Mina and Lucy virtually swoon over him. Indeed, the 1979 Dracula may be the first Dracula movie to feature a sex scene between Dracula and Mina! The film did poorly at the box office and received mixed reviews from the critics. Personally, I don't think the movie has ever gotten its due. While not a perfect film, it is a very good one. Frank Langella plays a marvelous Dracula, while Sir Laurence Oliver was a very good Van Helsing. The film also has some beautiful shots of various locations in England (where it was almost entirely shot).

So far most of the films I have discussed have departed from the novel a good deal. This is not the case with the 1992 film known variously as Bram Stoker's Dracula or more simply Dracula. Directed by Francis Ford Coppola, the movie stays loyal to the book for the most part, with but few changes. Indeed, it is the only Dracula movie I know of which features Quincy P. Morris (my favourite character in the book)! In my opinion Gary Oldham gave the quitessential performance as Dracula. He is not only romantic and sexy (as Frank Langella was) and commanding (as Christopher Lee was), but he is also dark, mysterious, and genuinely frightening. The film also benefits from Coppola's direction and some of the best editing in any vampire film. Sadly, it seems to me that Bram Stoker's Dracula has always been underrated. Critics did not give the movie its due and it did not do terribly well at the box office. I find that a shame, as it is perhaps the best Dracula movie outside of Nosferatu and the 1958 version of Dracula.

The novel Dracula entered the public domain on both sides of the Pond long ago. As a result anyone who wants to can make a Dracula movie. He has appeared in everything from an episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (one of my favourites) to clinkers like Dracula 2000. One thing is certain, the old Count will never stay off the silver screen for long.