[06/24/09 - 12:35 AM]
The Futon's First Look: "Philanthropist, The" (NBC)
By Brian Ford Sullivan (TFC)

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The network's description: ""The Philanthropist" chronicles the heroic adventures of a billionaire playboy turned vigilante philanthropist. James Purefoy ("Rome") stars as Teddy Rist, a successful tycoon whose life is forever changed after rescuing a young boy during a hurricane in the Nigerian town he was visiting. Rist is spontaneous and impulsive and quickly decides to channel his passion, power and money into helping those in need. Rist's actions are not just about helping others - he is purging his soul to help exorcise the inner demons which have been festering ever since his young son died and he lost everything he truly loved. Since the death of his son, the danger and risk to his life is the only way he can feel genuinely alive and he'll do anything in order to achieve his goals. A man who has everything but can feel nothing, Rist keeps his adrenaline pumping by 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. "The Philanthropist" 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, Philip Maidstone, and Neve Campbell ("Burn Up") plays Olivia, Philip's wife who also runs the charitable foundation set up by the two billionaires. Purefoy, Martin and Campbell are supported by a tremendous line up of names from both sides of the Atlantic including Lindy Booth ("The 4400"), Michael Kenneth Williams ("The Wire"), Krista Allen ("The Starter Wife") and newcomer James Albrecht."

What did they leave out? Co-creator Tom Fontana infamously left the show before the pilot was shot only to return for the series. And despite the aforementioned description, Purefoy, Campbell, Williams and Booth are the only ones billed as series regulars.

The plot in a nutshell: "Happiness is the art of living well," he explains the opening voiceover. "These days not many people are living well and the few who are, to me, they don't seem very happy. I'm happy most of the time. Well, to be honest I have more than my share of demons. And sometimes they chase me and sometimes I chase then." And with that we meet our hero, Teddy Rist (James Purefoy), the playboy billionaire co-CEO of natural resource brokerage firm Maidstone-Rist, Inc., as he recounts the truly amazing events of the past few days to a skeptical waitress (Gloria Votsis). It seems Teddy was visiting Nigeria on business when he found himself in the middle of a massive flood that would go on to wipe out an entire village. And during the commotion he found himself doing the unexpected: playing hero by rescuing a small boy after his boat capsized.

It's an event that has him return to New York a changed man. Already reeling from the loss of his own son, Teddy makes it his mission to help the boy and his village, much to the surprise of his partner Philip (Jesse L. Martin) and wife Olivia (Neve Campbell). Joined by his bodyguard Dax (the always welcome Michael Kenneth Williams) and his assistant AJ (Lindy Booth), Teddy returns to Nigeria, determined to make a difference. They however quickly learn that money and determination will only get you so far when dealing with corrupt governments and skeptical aid workers. Teddy nevertheless presses on - even at the risk of his own life - to follow through on his promise to help.

What works: Purefoy proves to be a dynamic lead as his charm and gravitas try their best to gloss over some of the more indulgent and manipulative aspects of the show. Fontana and company likewise deserve credit for trying address the obvious "rich man's guilt" aspect of the show. "This isn't about helping me or anyone else, is it?" explains one of them (Bonnie Henna), a Nigerian doctor trying to retrieve a vaccine shipment from the government. "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." In other words, he's got the heart to help, just not the stomach. His solution then is to push even harder - and drink a little more - rules (and perhaps his life) be damned, traits which Purefoy pulls off without dipping into the cliche.

What doesn't: At the same time however the show is a little too self-serving for my tastes. Not satisfied with the obvious emotional connection between Teddy's late son and saving the Nigerian boy, we not only have his image intercut with their interactions but he also appears when Teddy's at his wit's end - having been shot at, cut, bitten and everything in between at this point - to push him over the figurative goal line. And while David Simon has spoiled any future attempts at exposing the heartbreaking malaise of public institutions with "The Wire," Fontana's detailing of how corrupt governments can derail foreign aid still feels arbitrary at best. Despite all this, it's still nice to see a summer show on a broadcast network that doesn't feel like a burn off. "Philanthropist" has something to say and characters to say it, making me more than curious to see where the show decides to take us.

The bottom line: At the very least "Philanthropist" is proof positive that we need James Purefoy on our televisions each week.

  [june 2009]  


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