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HOWARD ROSENBERG / TELEVISION

Will Viewers Cozy Up to Naked Ambition in Sinfully Rich 'Profit'

April 08, 1996|HOWARD ROSENBERG

It was only two weeks ago that Christopher Reeve used his forum at the Academy Awards to urge Hollywood to take more risks. And now, like a thunderbolt answering his plea, comes "Profit."

Can a weekly drama about a homicidal super-heel have a future in prime time? Think so? Well, what if this twisted psychopath spends much of his time at home creating evil schemes in front of a computer while, um, nude? A bit more problematic, perhaps. Wouldn't he catch cold?

What level of program rating will Fox's new "Profit" earn should it survive long enough to see the V-chip? Well, it helps a bit that discreet camera angles obscure the nudity where it matters most.

In any case, "Profit" is rip-roaring, sinus-clearing bold and wonderful, a series whose heroically rotten protagonist may not please everyone as he plots a lethal course up the corporate ladder, but that is definitely the leading candidate to be TV's next cult sensation. When the two-hour premiere ends, bells are clanging and you're seeing stars.

The brightest may be Adrian Pasdar, so subtly fierce and evil as that cesspool of schemes, Jim Profit--a master actor playing a master actor.

Executive producers Stephen J. Cannell, David Greenwalt and John McNamara (the latter two are the show's creators) get credit for "Profit" even existing. As does Fox. While targeting younger viewers, the network not only spews more raunch but also takes more creative chances than do its three older rivals. Some of these gambles ("The Simpsons," "Married . . . With Children") have paid off commercially, others ("South Central," "Parker Lewis Can't Lose") vanished without leaving footprints. Just last week Fox introduced "Kindred: The Embraced," a prime-time series about hemorrhaging vampires.

*

The likes of "Profit" may not have been what Reeve envisioned. Yet classic antiheroes are risky business as television series, the common wisdom being that few viewers will continue to watch despicable TV characters if they're not surrounded by positive characters of equal stature.

Despicable describes Francis Urquhart, the predator deluxe in a trio of grand BBC miniseries that lit "Masterpiece Theatre" on PBS, the last having aired in February. The BBC terminated Urquhart in that third series--an assassin's bullet doing the trick--after actor Ian Richardson rejected returning as the fictional British prime minister, refusing to collaborate in extending life for such a fiend.

At least you could admire the size of Urquhart's ambition as he conspired and murdered his way to what was, after all, the top job in the realm, whereas Profit's narrower sphere is a $14-billion U.S. corporation, where he obsessively schemes to become president of acquisitions. As with Urquhart, though, he's driven as much by the game as the goal.

And driven continuously--a brilliant, ruthless, cyberspacial Richard III who uses advanced computer technology to track, snoop on and derail those between him and his objective, wearing a mask of coy, ingratiating smarminess while seeking to knock them off one by one, as the Duke of Gloucester did those blocking him from the throne.

In Profit's way initially is coarse, drug-addicted Bobbi Stokowski (Lisa Blount), who threatens to reveal his dark past if he doesn't fork over blackmail money. More formidable are the corporation's security chief, Joanne Meltzer (Lisa Zane), and its present acquisitions president, Jack Walters (Scott Paulin), both of whom are on to Profit.

But, ho hum, he's always at least a step ahead, toying with them while leaking his plans to viewers in his voice-over commentary, a whispery monotone whose irony and insincere platitudes keep you smiling.

Profit sniffs out weakness. He opens his career campaign tonight by getting the inside scoop on corporation employee Gail Koner (Lisa Darr) that he converts spectacularly to his own benefit. It's a computer sleuthing technique that he repeats again and again to exploit company rivalries and undermine his colleagues and their wives, the cynical subtext being that we all have nasty secrets that can be used against us.

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On occasion, things fall into place too easily for Profit. To believe him, viewers must believe in his ability to turn every potential calamity into opportunity and execute schemes predicated on the improbable. In a future episode, for example, he gains an advantage over Meltzer by bugging her therapist's office. How is he able to achieve that? The story doesn't pause to find out.

The premiere winds sinuously through a stretch of wonderful suspense choreography and surprising hairpin curves en route to what may be the most outrageous and provocative ending in the history of TV series.

Tonight, Profit proves to be a master forger. Next week, he speaks fluent Chinese, pretends to be a recovering alcoholic and runs rings around his enemies--there's a dark, mischievous wit at play here--in a typical day at the office that has you wondering how he has time to do the job he's paid for.

"So many traps to set," he sighs. And so many reasons to pull for him instead of the good guys he torments.

* "Profit" premieres at 8 tonight on Fox (Channel 11).

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