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.