TV Review: ‘The Philanthropist’

06.24.09 8 years ago


There’s the oft-told joke of the two diners at the restaurant. The first pushes his plate aside and says, “The food here is terrible.” The second nods and pushes his plate aside, carping, “Yes, and such small portions.”

Thanks to the illusory concept of 52-week network scheduling, this summer has actually offered a different spin. The brain food offered by the four-ish networks has been pretty dreadful this summer (thank heavens for cable), but it’s been an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord. Beyond the usual diversity of reality shows, this summer has been awash with new scripted shows on at least three networks (CBS just doesn’t care).

ABC has been steadily burning off shows that either failed during the season or didn’t make it on at all. On the plus side, that’s meant episodes of “Pushing Daisies” and “Eli Stone” and “Better Off Ted” and even “The Goode Family,” but it’s also meant “Surviving Suburbia” and the last few episodes of “According to Jim.” For FOX and NBC, it’s been a summer of oddball, low-budget, no-star international cost-cutting originals, ersatz takeoffs on familiar genres resembling eighth generation photocopies. Some viewers have liked “Mental” or “Merlin” or “The Listener” because they resemble other shows that offered greater enjoyment in the past.

Because TV critics invariably grade on a curve, NBC’s new series “The Philanthropist” deserves to get credit for what ought to be a foregone conclusion: It looks and feels like a professionally made television series. 

That may, in fact, be slightly underselling the potential virtues of “The Philanthropist.”

[Review after the break.]

“Rome” veteran James Purefoy stars as Teddy Rist, a billionaire playboy who finds renewed purpose in life when he begins collecting stamps.

Wait. Strike that. That’s actually the plot summary of next summer’s NBC drama “The Philatelist,” which will be produced at a lower cost.

Purefoy’s Rist is, indeed, a wealthy drunk and philanderer whose excesses are tied both to his available income, but also to the death of his son and estrangement from his wife (Krista Allen). In Africa, in the middle of a hurricane, Rist sees one miserable, homeless child and suddenly everything changes. Faster than you can see “Liberal Guilt: The Series,” Rist realizes that there’s no point in being rich if you can’t help people, which is both a worthy goal and a subject of confusion for his friend and business partner Philip Maidstone (Jesse L. Martin). Maidstone is also married to Rist’s ex, Olivia (Neve Campbell), the woman in charge of the company’s non-profit wing.

The show’s concept and Rist’s conversion experience run the risk of making a mockery of the deeply meaningful charity that ordinary people everyday. Why are we celebrating this boor of a man who had to personally imprint with one cute kid in order to realize he just might be able to do good with his money? I mean, he’s like Bruce Wayne, if Bruce Wayne went around boasting about being Batman. Fortunately, Tom Fontana’s script recognizes that altruism aside, Rist’s good deeds are about his own personal expiation.

“This isn’t about helping me or anyone else,” a Nigerian doctor chides him. “This is about you, playing the role of the charming, rich businessman who travels the world getting his hands just dirty enough to go back home and tell his American friends how meaningful his life is compared to theirs.”

The arc of the episode is meant to prove her wrong, but she isn’t totally off-base and Fontana and company are smart enough to see that portraying Rist as a selfless saint would be excruciatingly disingenuous or maybe disingenuously excruciating.

Purefoy doesn’t have that sort of character in him anyway. I don’t want to say Purefoy excels at playing buffoons, but his more interesting characters balance a short of nobility and buffoonery. The British actor, blessedly allowed to use his own accent, is part of the post-Daniel Craig vanguard of stars who have caused domestic casting directors to say, “Ummm… Why aren’t American actors this manly?” That’s why the pipelines have opened to welcome the likes of Simon Baker and Damian Lewis to the small screen. Purefoy is like Thomas Jane, only with a personality! Without Purefoy’s playful nature, “The Philanthropist” might sink under its own self-importance. But it doesn’t.

Appreciation for “The Philanthropist” almost requires that you ignore the pilot, or that you’re prepared to look past it. This is a series which, on many levels, does not put its best foot forward. It’s an origin story explaining Rist’s new-found conscience, but the entire episode has been framed as Teddy’s rambling explanation to a comely bartender we’ll never see again. It’s a clunky and unnecessary device, one that keeps running the storytelling aground just when the drama is picking up. And some of the action scenes are pretty spiffy, with menacing drug lords, natural disasters and gunfights on all sides. Every time they cut back to an increasingly drunk Rist at the bar, more momentum is lost.

I suppose the waitress is supposed to stand-in for the viewers, raising her eyebrow when we raise ours, but it plays like they didn’t quite have the courage to do one of those “Alias”/”West Wing”-type episodes that begins with something shocking happening, followed by a title card reading “48 Hours Earlier” and then shows us how we got to that point, but they still wanted the show to play out like a mystery. 

How did Rist end up in the African jungle?

How did he end up on a dirt-bike?

Why isn’t he wearing any shoes?

Is this really what the series is about?

Well, if you’ve read any of the stories about the behind-the-scenes struggles to get the show off the ground, creatively, you know there was some debate about that last question, about the story Fontana wanted to tell and the story NBC wanted told. The pilot’s split personality can probably be chalked up to that tumult. 

Building the show around Purefoy’s exclusive narration is both clunky and, for the pilot at least, it leaves a lot of well-liked actors doing almost nothing. I can’t say for sure what Martin and Campbell are going to be adding to “The Philanthropist,” because for the pilot, the answer is “Nothing at all.” I can guess that the show will eventually make more use of them, but that Michael K. Williams — Omar Little to fans of “The Wire” — will continue to be totally wasted as Rist’s bodyguard.

The “Philanthropist” pilot was directed by Peter Horton and shot on location in Nigeria. And yes, it’s really Nigeria and they call it Nigeria. This isn’t “24” going to South Africa, calling it Sangala and basically making a monolithic lie out of Africa. “The Philanthropist” may lose points for holier-than-though attitude, but it deserves credit for its specificity and for looking like it cost a ton (money which may, we hope, have gone into the local infrastructures in addition to going onto the screen).

On a screener DVD, “The Philanthropist” looked good, but in high-def, it’ll look even better. With subsequent episodes shot in Kashmir, Burma and Kosovo, production values will be reason enough to keep tuning in. Whether the supporting casting rises to Purefoy’s level and whether the storytelling can dodge the self-inflicted pitfalls of the pilot will be a different issue.

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