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Review: The Philanthropist 1x1

Posted on June 26, 2009 | Post a comment | Bookmark and Share

The Philanthropist

In the US: Wednesdays, 10/9c, NBC
In Canada: Wednesdays, 10/9c, Global TV

Ooh, Africa. It's a bit tricky, isn't it? What with all the shit happening, and stuff and ooh, it just makes you want to throw your hands in the air and do nothing.

If only there were like some really cool, really rich, billionaire Western guy who could go in and like sort things out, by you know, "hands-on philanthropy", which would be like riding motorbikes without shoes on to get medicine to villagers before he gets on his Lear Jet. Because that would, like, really sort it all out.

Okay, it's quite easy to sneer at The Philanthropist. Look, I just did it.

But:

  1. It is actually based on a real person - Bobby Sager - although only very loosely on him
  2. It stars British actor James Purefoy and that Neve Campbell woman
  3. Despite its silliness, its artificiality and its shallow attempts to depict an incredibly complicated situation in a 40-minute action-adventure format, The Philanthropist has its heart in the right place and isn't so stupid that you can hear the pebbles rattling around inside its skull.
  4. It's got Omar from The Wire in it.

Here on some YouTube promos; more about the show after the jump:

Plot
Filmed in South Africa, Mozambique and Prague, "The Philanthropist," starring James Purefoy ("Rome"), is an eight-part drama for NBC that follows the heroic adventures of Teddy Rist, billionaire playboy-turned-vigilante philanthropist, taking him across the globe from Haiti to Myanmar, Kashmir to Paris, Kosovo to San Diego. But the story starts off in Nigeria.

Teddy loves money, women and power, but following a severe flood in a Nigerian town, he is haunted by the memory of a young boy he rescued. Teddy is spontaneous and impulsive and quickly decides to channel his passion, power and money into helping those in need. The danger and risk to his life is the only way Teddy can feel genuinely alive and he'll do anything in order to achieve his goals and keep the adrenaline pumping; putting his business head and money-making skills to good use through bargaining with the self-righteous, making deals with drug barons, and trading with the nefarious.

But these actions are not just about helping others -- Teddy is purging his soul to help exorcise the inner demons that have been festering ever since his young son died and he lost everything he truly loved.

The pilot is written by Tom Fontana ("Homicide: Life on the Street") and is directed by Peter Horton ("Grey's Anatomy") and boasts a heady cast of established and up-and-coming talent. Purefoy takes on the lead role of Teddy Rist, Jesse L. Martin ("Law & Order") plays Teddy's business partner and friend, Phillip Maidstone, and Neve Campbell ("Burn Up") plays Olivia, Phillip's wife, who also runs the charitable foundation set up by the two billionaires.

Purefoy and Martin are supported by a fabulous lineup of names from both sides of the Atlantic including Lindy Booth ("The 4400"), Michael Kenneth Williams ("The Wire") and newcomer James Albrecht. The series is based on a concept developed by Charlie Corwin, CEO of Original Media, and Jim Juvonen.

"The Philanthropist" (8 x 60') is a Carnival Films production in association with Original Media for NBC Universal for transmission on NBC in spring '09. The executive producers are Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Charlie Corwin, Peter Horton, Gareth Neame and Teri Weinberg.

Is it any good?
There have been better shows made in our time, but very few have attempted to be so ambitious in dealing with world issues and problems. Even fewer have bothered to go overseas to do it.

As with almost all pilot episodes, The Philanthropist's is something of a jumble. This is a true 'origins' story, in which our hero's road to Damscus and subsequent conversion to hands-on philanthropy are depicted, rather than having us thrown in to his ongoing endeavours and the back story fed to us through dialogue.

But rather than a straight narrative, it's told through a bar conversation - presumably designed to get another hot white woman into the story somehow - so as well as trips from hurricane- and bribery-ravaged Nigeria to the US and back again, we have the whole thing done in flashback to confuse matters even more.

This means there's not enough time to do more than name the supporting characters, let alone give them any story, particularly since we have to have an unnecessary extra 'motivation' for the character's philanthropy: a break-up with his wife following his son's death. Not that we necessarily want to get to know them, since they can be idiots at times: his PA is the kind of woman who knows she's going to a country that's had a Katrina-sized hurricane hit it so only packs a little black dress to wear; while Purefoy's bodyguard (Michael Kenneth Williams) seems to want to leave him to the wolves at every opportunity, rather than, you know, protect him.

We also have another issue: James Purefoy is acting. I mean acting. Seriously. This is a problem, because he's clearly gleaned from the plot notes that his character has demons to exorcise, and so plays our hero as a complete mentalist for most of the episode - except in those bar flashbacks where he comes across as a sleaze (it says in the plot notes he's a womaniser as well). It's hard to root for a complete mentalist, who's putting lives at risk to ease his conscience.

Nevertheless, despite its clumsiness, it's clear that this isn't an utterly dumb show. Characters point out that having a westerner come in and flash his money about to make himself feel better isn't that edifying or helpful; Nigeria isn't depicted as an utter backwater of civilisation (cf Lost) and they have at least gone as far as South Africa to shoot the series; there's some attempt to show the difficulty of the problems faced in the country, even if most of them are about an artificial situation (a hurricane) rather than say, the massive poverty in the country despite its oil revenues; and the show really seems geared to smaller philanthropic efforts, like helping little orphan boys and stopping a few villagers from getting cholera, rather than having the entire country's problems fixed with a bit of cash.

The Philanthropist does plan to go to countries other than Nigeria, so whether they'll be handled better or worse, I can't say. It's better than the more brain-dead NBC shows we've had of late (eg Knight Rider, My Own Worst Enemy), but so far, it's not inspiring and really needs to focus on making us like the philanthropist and his actions, rather than think he's going to create more problems than he solves.

There's a whole load of interviews about the show over at The Philanthropist's YouTube channel, but here are a few to get you started.

Related entries

  • July 9, 2009: Third-episode verdict: The Philanthropist
    A review of the first three episodes of NBC's The Philanthropist, starring James Purefoy
  • February 16, 2013: Review: The Following 1x1 (Fox/Sky Atlantic)
    A review of the first episode of The Following
  • March 9, 2016: Review: Hap and Leonard 1x1 (US: SundanceTV; UK: Amazon Instant Video)
    A review of the first two episodes of SundanceTV's Hap and Leonard

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