April 08, 1996 12:00 PM

REFRESHINGLY CRUEL, FOX’S PROFIT, a prime-time soap about corporate skulduggery, is the most exciting new show I’ve seen so far this year. This hour-long series (launching with a special two-hour movie on Mon., April 8, at 8 p.m. ET, an hour before its regular slot) is perfect for an age of downsizing conglomerates and incredible shrinking employees. Watching Profit is like visiting a hive in crisis. The bees prowl the honeycombs of power, buzzing with anger, stingers at the ready.

Adrian Pasdar plays Jim Profit, an ambitious young executive, newly hired at a fictional FORTUNE 100 company called Gracen & Gracen, the exact business of which is kept nebulous, almost abstract. Profit, who has his eye on the chief of acquisitions job, swings up the rungs of the corporate ladder with unnerving ease. He does this by scrupulously abandoning all principle. He breaks into computer files, blackmails his assistant and discreetly murders one major obstacle.

None of this is meant to be terribly plausible, but in the four hours I’ve seen, the complications click into place with satisfying precision. Adding a special, nasty kick is the damp perversion just beneath the gleaming office interiors. Why does Profit, padding around in the nude in his apartment at night, disappear into a secret compartment? We soon learn that this has something to do with his nightmarish childhood and that his drive for power is a case of psychological overcompensation. In fact most people in this show seem hardly more than a few baby steps from a breakdown. Joanne Meltzer (Lisa Zane), the corporate-security chief, intuits how dangerous Profit is after a single encounter, but her own traumatic memories keep burbling up and throwing her off track.

Profit should make a star of Pasdar, a 30-year-old actor probably best known for his role as a grungy vampire in the 1987 cult movie Near Dark. There are times when his sexy, coldly robotic performance feels too familiar: It’s the same suave-creep number that’s Kyle MacLachlan’s specialty. What I like, though, is that Pasdar doesn’t play the role with the inner smile that lets you know he enjoys being bad. He’s nothing like Ian Richardson as Prime Minister Francis Urquhart in PBS’s The Final Cut. Urquhart destroyed careers with a chipper briskness that seemed recreational. Pasdar whispers his lines with a deadness that has none of the fun of deadpan. You don’t root for Profit. You don’t like him. Yet you watch. He has a sick integrity.

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