Sunday, August 14, 2005


The New York Times has a review of the DVD release of the complete series "Profit," one of the most fondly-remembered of the '90s crop of brilliant-but-cancelled shows.

I'd never seen the series before the DVDs came out, but now that I have, I'm surprised that no one has brought up the most obvious comparison for the show: How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. That Broadway musical, and the movie version, concerned a young man who starts in the mailroom at a big corporation (that doesn't seem to make anything in particular) and, by following the instructions in a how-to-succeed manual, climbs the corporate ladder by double-crossing, backstabbing and outwitting each person who ranks above him, until finally he winds up as C.E.O. "Profit" was an over-the-top, slightly campy melodrama rather than a comedy, but it's basically the same idea: Jim Profit is a young junior executive with a generic corporation, Grayson and Grayson, who is determined to be second-in-command at the company (his abusive father raised him in a Grayson and Grayson box, and he sees the company as the family he never had), and rises to the top by hatching incredibly elaborate master plans to get other executives fired, arrested or killed.

One of the central jokes of the show is that even though Profit is a complete psychopath who murders his father, sleeps with his stepmother, blackmails a woman who embezzled a few hundred dollars to pay her mother's hospital bills, and has an honorable executive framed for murder (and that's all in the first two episodes), we can't really feel too bad about what Profit does, because he's carrying out a typical revenge fantasy: getting back at those fat-cat executives. The fact that most of his schemes depend on the corporate executives being dumber than a box of rocks only adds to the feeling that he's more likable than they are, because he's so much smarter. Besides which, there are constant hints dropped that the corporation is involved in all kinds of amoral and shady deals; the pilot episode centers around the fact that the corporation bought a company that lies about what it's putting in baby food, and that it's corporate policy to cover it up. Nothing Profit does, in other words, is as evil as what the corporation is doing to the public; and at least he only hurts people within the "family."

Part of the problem with the show, entertaining as it is, is that this joke wears thin, and you (or I at least) start to want to see the other corporate executives be a little less dumb; the fact that hardly anyone catches on to Profit's real character starts to stretch credibility within the first half-hour of the pilot, and by the end of the eighth and last episode, the C.E.O. is starting to seem more and more like J.B. Biggley.

Also, there was a structural problem built into the first and second episodes that probably contributed to the show's failure: the pilot has hardly any real conflict. It's just one vignette after another of Profit executing one of his evil schemes and being one step ahead of everybody. And then the second episode has essentially the same plot as the first. It's not until the third episode that the writers (David Greenwalt and John McNamara) introduce the idea that Profit can sometimes lose and be outsmarted by others, and suddenly the show becomes more interesting, because we're now watching to see if he'll win and how he'll deal with unexpected problems. It's easier to root for the bad guy if he seems to be in trouble; remember Norman Bates trying to sink that car? But by the time the producers added that hook to the show, viewers had tuned out, probably writing the show off as a well-produced but one-note show. Which it sort of was, but at least it wound up as a very entertaining one-note show.

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