Monster in a box

Stephen J. Cannell's "Profit" takes evil
to delicious new heights. But he should
have let "Wiseguy" rest in peace.

By JOYCE MILLMAN | Illustration by Zach Trenholm

Shakespeare and Orson Welles understood it, and so does Aaron Spelling: The bad guy is often a lot more interesting than the good guy. And over the past couple of decades, TV has pursued this theme as aggressively (and often more memorably) than any other medium, from soap villains like J.R. Ewing and "Melrose Place's'' psycho du jour, to anti-heroes with emotional baggage like "Miami Vice's" Sonny Crockett, "ER's" Doug Ross and the conflicted cops on "NYPD Blue" and "Homicide."

But for sheer oily allure, it's hard to beat Sonny Steelgrave and Mel Profitt, the first two bad guys from the debut season of Stephen J. Cannell's "Wiseguy," which ran on CBS from 1987 to 1990. As mobster Steelgrave, the late Ray Sharkey turned in a charismatic, Cagney-esque performance of a lifetime, while Kevin Spacey's Profitt, a heroin-shooting millionaire with a thing for his sister, was the prototype for all Spacey nutcases since. The bad guys never won on "Wiseguy," but compared to the brooding slab of beefcake that was its star, Ken Wahl, as good guy federal agent Vinnie Terranova, they were the ones you wanted to root for.

Even Mel Profitt at his craziest (extolling the virtues of Thomas Malthus while on a junk rush), though, didn't quite prepare us for Jim Profit (no relation), the anti-hero -- or is that anti-Christ?-- of Cannell's latest series "Profit" (9 p.m. Mondays), which is now halfway through a six-episode trial run on Fox.

Co-produced by Cannell and writers David Greenwalt ("Shannon's Deal") and John McNamara ("The Adventures of Brisco County Jr."), "Profit" is a dark, twisted and pleasurably wicked seriocomic soap about the rottenest businessman ever to walk the Earth.

Handsome, earnest, eager Profit (Adrian Pasdar) shows up for work one day as Junior Vice President of Acquisitions at Gracen & Gracen, "the 15th largest corporation in the world," and proceeds to charm, lie, blackmail, intimidate and murder his way up through the ranks, while narrating his story in passages of motivational babble ("What you didn't win today, you'll win tomorrow," "The important thing to remember in business is that what may seem like a calamity may turn out to be an opportunity").

So far, Profit has pumped a superior with a lethal dose of a heart attack-causing drug, framed another for murder, gotten still another fired for sabotage, taken the soul of a meek secretary and the sanity of his boss' wife. And it's all been terrific fun.

Next page: What makes Jimmy run?