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Pop culture is ready for its next favorite psychopath

This month’s GQ excerpts an essay from Jon Ronson’s new book The Psychopath Test, which examines the frightening likelihood that the subtly yet undeniably insane are prevalent in every area of society – especially in the upper echelons of power. Reading the piece – an intriguing mini-profile of a notorious corporate executive, “Chainsaw” Al Dunlop – motivated me to revisit two related texts that I’ve loved (though one of which I have
only the faintest memories of).

One is Snakes In Suits, a book co-authored by Paul Babiak and Robert Hare, the psychopathy expert who designed the test which gives Ronson’s book its inspiration and title. Babiak and Hare argue, with fairly chilling plausibility, that many traits endemic to psychopaths are also traits that drive a great deal of success in corporate America. (It’s important to note here that, despite its grisly popular connotation, the medical diagnosis of psychopathy is not intrinsically tantamount to violent crime.)

For example, they’re experts at reading and manipulating people and at mimicking, if not interpolating, accepted social behavior. This makes them adept at cultivating surface-deep relationships and appearing outwardly charming – expert networkers, in other words. They bore easily and are constantly seeking ways to occupy their minds (in resume spin this would translate to “curious” or “go-getter”); they’re consummate narcissists, unconcerned with anyone but themselves (“confident;” “goal-driven”); and they exhibit an almost total lack of either fear (“risk-taker”) or empathy (“able to make tough decisions”).

The other point of reference the article triggered is the very short-lived Fox series Profit, which starred Adrian Pasdar several lifetimes before he whisked an exploding brother into the wild blue yonder. I probably haven’t seen a minute of it since its initial 1996 run (oh hello, Netflix queue…), but I remember being engrossed in its story of a deeply ambitious, deeply damaged man who gets ahead in business by the most despicable means. The lead character, Jim Profit, isn’t so much an anti-hero as a straight-up villain, presaging and in some ways outstripping modern dark protagonists like Tony Soprano and Walter White.

Profit didn’t fit in the network TV landscape of the mid-90s, even on Fox, which was still embracing some vague notion of “edginess” in its brand identity at the time. But something like that show, taking Hare’s theories as a guide, would find a more welcoming home on cable in 2011. Snakes In Suits is filled with vignettes, both real and imagined, which illustrate the rich character and narrative depths that could be explored in a movie or series about a genuine psychopath flourishing in business school and climbing the corporate ladder.

Two things will immediately leap to everyone’s mind in response: American Psycho and Dexter. But a show based on the Hare model would differ from both in two important ways. First, as I mentioned, a psychopath doesn’t have to be violent. Like Hare’s case studies, many rely just fine on psychological warfare for destroying enemies and attaining power subtly, behaving immorally but not necessarily illegally. Even light on lethality, that’s still the stuff of potent, intelligent drama.

Second, both Patrick Bateman and Dexter Morgan (their live-action versions, anyway; I can’t speak for their literary counterparts) seek to disguise their sicknesses and blend in; the extent to which they succeed is in spite of, not because of, their mental maladies. When Batemen’s homicidal urges boil over, or when Dexter grapples with his “dark passenger,” it threatens to unravel the “normal” life the man is faking his way through. Hare’s corporate psychopaths, by contrast, relish and exploit their anomalies. They blend in only as a means of getting what they want – normalcy is a sword, not a shield. They have no dual life, no hidden dark side. They’re all dark side. And they’ve monetized it.

A series centered on such a character would, though, be a clear thematic kin to both American Psycho and Dexter, which both use a mentally unstable protagonist to hold a mirror up to warped contemporary values. The former is about how the culture of the 1980s became so aggressively materialistic and navel-gazing that it turned a blind eye to the horrific domestic and international violence it fed; the latter is about how civilization fails to wholly reconcile conventional morality with primal notions of justice and vengeance, and how easily one rushes in to fill the vacuum left by the breakdown of the other.

Snakes In Suits: The Series (or whatever) could explore how and why society defines “success” in the ways it does, and the ramifications of that in terms of what sort of people are allowed into power. A show like that, handled with an honest appreciation for the psychology involved, could be damn gripping in the wake of the financial collapse – which, I’d wager, more than a few textbook corporate psychopaths had some kind of hand in.

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