June 24th, 2009
The Philanthropist has been a rather rocky development process for NBC, with numerous showrunner switches and some changes of vision in terms of what the show was supposed to be. The result is that it’s airing later than it was supposed to, hustled off into the summer months like it’s a half-baked Canadian (Worst. Canadian. Ever.) co-production rather than a globetrotting drama with a pretty high-profile cast. And while part of me thinks that this is strange since it seems like it could be quite a compelling piece of television programming, I sort of see their logic.
The Philanthropist is a show that derives its setup almost entirely from the notion of experience, as hero Teddy Rist is changed overnight from a billionaire who pays lip service to charity work to someone who risks his life in order to deliver cholera vaccine to a Hurricane-ravaged village in Nigeria. The pilot is all about us experiencing that moment with him, told as a story to an disbelieving waitress in a bar in the middle of nowhere. That experience, though, is a highly isolated one, as really it is only James Purefoy’s Rist who gets anything close to a setup here. This is his show, without question, and right now there doesn’t appear to be much of a story or characters around him to really go beyond that.
However, since Purefoy remains extremely charming, speaking here in his native accent even, it seems like that’s enough for the show, at least in its pilot. Not trying to bring characters to the various supporting players, and choosing to define them almost exclusively based on their relationships with our protagonist, this is a slavishly linear adventure of how a billionaire turned into a one man foreign aid machine, a transformation that Purefoy sells that that is honestly quite fun to watch, a sort of 24: Redemption meets Burn Notice kind of scenario that hits buttons both emotional and comic. They haven’t quite created a show around him yet, but as an experiential introduction into this world the pilot’s an effective tool for convincing me to give the show a shot.
We get what is a fairly traditional pilot model here, as we see him racing barefoot on a motorcycle through a jungle, certainly not what you’d expect from a billionaire. It results in a pretty fast-paced, shortcut filled journey as we go from a man on business in Nigeria during a hurricane to a man who selflessly risks his life to save a child, which we learn is a surrogate for his own child who died a year ago, and who inspires him to become a vigilante man of charity. Along the way, he’s admonished for being part of a corporate world that tends to take advantage of situations like the hurricane-ravaged Nigeria, attacked for participating in charity only to one-up his fellow boys’ club members and prove his moral superiority, and finds himself forced to get into bed with a noted drug trafficker in order to get a single box of cholera vaccine out from red tape bureaucracy and into the village where it is desperately needed.
That’s a lot to work into one episode, and they’re lucky that Purefoy is capable of selling it all. Whether being part of the aforementioned conversations, or in the simple act of getting out of his fancy car and walking through the streets of the city, he manages to take what could seem like a really sudden character term seem instead like a legitimate awakening, albeit one that is certainly rushed for the sake of the show’s setup. There are points where things went a bit too over the top (the already bloody and exhausted hero didn’t really need to get bitten by a snake, for example), and I think those are missteps begotten of a frazzled development process. I would have found the character perhaps even more engaging if, instead of being brought down by venomous animals, had he simply not had the energy to go further, beaten by what was an overly heroic display of strength and determination, only then to be revived by the image of his dead son. They had so many balls in the air, designed to push the audience to see him as a hero, but there were a few moments of humanity that could have been drawn from that.
I want the show to spend a bit more time on the ethical dilemmas he faces, whether it’s supporting a drug cartel or even as he talks his way out of a run-in with the DEA. The show reminds me of Burn Notice a fair bit, and what I think it lacks on that front is those signs that the hero is every bit as aware of the morality in question within every single mission, and it seems to visibly effect him. Here, Rist was so one-minded in his goal that we admired him for it, but there needed to be a bit more complexity in his decision-making to really hit on the show’s most interesting themes. Purefoy is more than up to the task, so I’m hoping to see some dramatic work that’s less about piling on the sympathy (his dead son’s spinning top being passed onto his surrogate son in Nigeria) and more about expanding the show’s perspective.
Still, you can’t argue it wasn’t effective on that front: we didn’t quite get as much of the “old” Rist as I would have liked, and there was plenty of rushing to get him from Point A to Point B, but the story of a man whose son passed away, ending his marriage, and who has turned into a lothario changed by an experience with another little boy in Africa is a compelling introduction to this character. No, it doesn’t really set much of a precedent for the series (I don’t quite think he’ll be doing barefoot motorcycling in every episode without things seeming a bit ridiculous), but it does provide a far more compelling character to watch than procedurals like The Listener (man, I’m all about ragging on that show tonight) which capture the everyday hero. Instead, we have someone who isn’t normal at all, but has chosen to use that for good in a way that I find compelling enough to stick around for.
Ultimately, the pilot sacrifices a lot of things it’s going to have to do in the future: we need to know more about Neve Campbell’s non-profit organizer, we need to spend more time with his special operations manager, and his bodyguard could certainly use some more screentime considering that it’s bloody Omar. I don’t remember any of their names without checking my notes, and I should be capable of remembering more than one character name after an hour-long show. The pilot didn’t bother concerning itself with plot or character, choosing instead to present a rather epic individual journey. It paid off for Purefoy’s character, but there’s some fairly talented people in the cast that I think could be effective at expanding the show’s universe.
I wish I could tell you where it’s going to go from here, or what it’s going to look like, but I don’t think I really have a handle on that – in fact, I’m not even sure the show has a handle on it. Right now, the basic premise seems to be that Rist is about vigilante justice, ignoring the advice of his business advisor (Jesse L. Martin) and getting hands on with his charitable causes in an effort to find meaning in his life. That, though, can only be sustained for so long. Nonetheless, there was enough here in Purefoy’s performance and the creation of his character that there’s plenty of reasons to stick around for a few episodes to see how it comes together.
- The entire bartender/Rist interaction felt particularly off, if only because it was creating too literally a storytelling model for the audience. I would be fine with it if it had been for the purpose of anything but exposition, but the scenes themselves never really crackled, nor did the show have any fun or even any interest in investigating what parts of the stories he was lying about and that which he was not exaggerating. There was something to be done there (played out a bit when he spoke of making love with the doctor), but it seemed underutilized.
- Considering how long this show has been in production, I was surprised to see note of an economic crisis – a billionaire in charge of a company that deals in natural resources is obviously recession proof, but it shows that amongst their small changes an understanding of the current climate has been taken into account.
- I’ll be curious to see to what level the show balanced international as well as domestic poverty/charity in its philanthropy – I’d actually argue that domestic stories might be both more realistic and more eye-opening, should the show be choosing to go down the road of informing the public as much as it is entertaining them. For now, the show’s website features information regarding Nigeria, so this seems to be their direction.
- The sheer convenience of a Nigerian/American drug enforcement mission taking place at that time was a huge stretch to justify his abandonment, but I’ll accept it for now – in the future, I’d prefer some less forced barriers to be placed in front of him.