Before the current flowering of cable networks, which can more easily accommodate vicious anti-heroes like James Gandolfini in HBO's The Sopranos and Michael Chiklis in FX's The Shield, all roads led through the four major networks, and the tried-and-true formulas still applied. When John McNamara and David Greenwalt shopped around the idea for Profit, a nasty piece of corporate intrigue with a sociopath hero, they were kicked out of a CBS executive's office. While going over the pilot script, they came to a scene in which Jim Profit—the slick, ruthless climber who would eventually be played to steely perfection by Adrian Pasdar—greets an attractive stranger with a deep, passionate kiss. "Hi, mother," he says, and with that, McNamara and Greenwalt were out on their asses. Though Fox, the least major of the majors, eventually picked up the series for an aborted four-episode run in 1996, it was clear that mainstream America wasn't ready to embrace a bloodless manipulator with a raging Oedipal complex. But it sure was glorious while it lasted.
In most respects, Profit takes the form of a conventional corporate melodrama, spiced up by secret interoffice romance and some garden-variety backstabbing from executives looking to get ahead. The difference is Pasdar, who seems separated at birth from American Psycho's Christian Bale; they're both impeccably fashioned company men who speak in tones as deep and sinister as a shadow. Pasdar is a shark in a tie, pushing his sinister agenda at every waking moment, constantly orchestrating blackmail schemes so he can undermine his superiors and advance another rung on the corporate ladder. At night, he retires to a sleek urban apartment, where he curls up to sleep naked inside a filthy cardboard box. It's almost unfortunate that the producers came up with some pop-psychological reasons for the box, but it's an unforgettable image, suggesting a lunatic and a vulnerable child rolled into one.
The new Profit: The Complete Series two-DVD set includes the original four episodes, plus four unaired installments that significantly deepen Pasdar's connection to the company as a kind of surrogate family. It's possible the show would have lost its sting—and certainly its "buried treasure" mystique—had it lasted longer, because by the end of the unaired episodes, Pasdar's dirty dealings have started to repeat themselves a little. But the few who watched the show in its initial run were left with an indelible impression: Critics rallied to support a venture that was at least five years ahead of its time, and audiences were turned off just as dramatically. In the hourlong feature included on the DVD set, McNamara recalls the precipitous ratings drop Profit experienced over the course of the two-hour pilot; so many viewers were falling away that by the end, he jokes, "only people that I'm related to were watching the show." The handful of others that stuck around wouldn't soon forget what they saw.