The little known American TV show, Profit (1996), was a decade ahead of its time, exploring social taboos, stolen identities, sociopathic behaviour in the corporate world, and a psychologically damaged protagonist. The central character, an anti-hero, whose eccentric behaviour retains the audience’s sympathy in spite of his shocking behaviour.
Secretive, manipulative, and calculating; Jim Profit hopes to control Gracen & Gracen, a corporation he is obsessed with, to the point where he calls it a ‘family’. Profit is a corporate shark taking out his competition one by one, playing the game, bending the rules when it suits him — damaged by his abusive father, and dysfunctional childhood, he now lives under a stolen identity. He uses spin to his advantage, playing it with a poker face, completely disingenuous, and yet disarmingly honest in his secret dialogues with the audience. Jim Profit — an outsider, fighting the corporate world — appears to be the living embodiment of The Art of War.
In the superficially glitzy and glamorous environment, with its glass skyscrapers, and slick designer attire, the series exposes the superficial respectability of corporate executives, who are themselves riddled with corruption, vanity, and sordid secrets. Alone in this world, armed only with his cunning and his computer hacking skills, Profit is a harbinger of doom, sent to wreak havoc on the people he encounters in corporate America — a world that we have already sub-consciously pronounced: ‘guilty’. Profit is the audience’s psychologically disturbed agent of retribution, sent to eradicate self-serving corporate executives.
Jim Profit has no real friends — apart from us, the audience, who he talks to every night before he goes to sleep, and even says ‘Good night’ to. We are, in effect, by suggestion, part of his internal conversation.
Profit’s attraction as a character is that he is a survivor, having survived an abusive father who brought him up isolated, in a cardboard Gracen & Gracen box, fed on scraps, with only a television for social contact with the world. Profit strolls around his minimalist apartment, naked, watching the fish in a large fish tank (which has echoes of Ben’s fish tank in The Graduate), detached and cynically observing the business world around him, who he views as tainted. This is an America that is literally selling itself lock stock and barrel to the Far East — the post-American dream, twenty years before the Donald Trump presidency and the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’. Something is palpably wrong in this world, more than that, almost everything is wrong. But, unlike the other executives, who are greedy, vain, and power obsessed, Profit genuinely loves and believes in Gracen & Gracen (G & G).
Profit’s darkly amoral character predates many of the anti-heroes that appeared later appear on American television: Dexter Morgan, Don Draper, and Walter White, for example. These characters are outsiders, surviving in an alien world, poisoned by it perhaps; fighting it in the only way they know how. They win the audience over with their candid observations, and their ability to see it for what it is — and, perversely, despite the destruction they bring to those around them, they are less immoral than their adversaries and rivals. The high school teacher, Walter White, in Breaking Bad, learns to operate in the criminal underworld, producing and selling drugs to support his family. Don Draper in Mad Men, like Profit, has assumed another man’s identity, and places supreme importance on his family, as does Walter White.
Stylistically, Profit is a product of its time, with its Lawnmower Man (1992) style virtual reality graphics, and its soap opera-like production values. But it was also a harbinger of the television protagonists that would appear a decade later, and an indication of a dysfunctional America — a vision of a self-serving corporate America, and financial irresponsibility — the portrayal of a USA where things had already gone wrong, long before the global financial crisis of 2007 – 2008.
And yet Jim Profit, is something of a riddle: calculating, and stoically philosophical, full of considered words that appear to reveal something about the world — even managing to include a vaguely optimistic note, here and there. In his own words, in one of his bedtime monologues to the audience:
No, life may not be easy. It can be lonely-full of people we think we know, but barely comprehend. Yet we must always remember, it’s the challenges that define us best and the obstacles that illuminate what we’re truly capable of. We must welcome adversity and embrace struggle, and no matter what we get from life, never give less than 100%. Of course, at the end of every battle-weary day, we fold ourselves into peaceful darkness and find comfort in those gentle words: Good night.