Listen, I’m not the world’s most politically correct guy, but when I heard that NBC’s new series The Philanthropist would focus on a billionaire playboy white guy traveling the world and helping disadvantaged minorities and poor people, I cringed a little inside. It’s not that, y’know, those of us in more prosperous nations shouldn’t be charitable or anything, but these sorts of shows almost always turn into an examination of just why the billionaire white guy needs to assuage his own guilt. In the interest of creating characters worth being interested in (always a noble goal), dramatists often end up turning the people they’re trying to help into mere props in the storyline.
But, hey, the original primary creative force behind The Philanthropist was the great Tom Fontana, one of the finest TV drama writers of the last 30 years or so (having worked on everything from St. Elsewhere to Oz). Fontana’s something of a playwright at heart (his best episodes, like Homicide: Life on the Street’s “Three Men and Adena,” tend to take place in enclosed spaces with limited amounts of characters and an externally imposed time limit), but he creates deeply soulful characters, who can be prickly, yes, but have an essential humanity that can’t be dimmed. He’s been out of the TV game for a little while, so the prospect of having him back was heartening. Then, he left the show and was replaced by David Eick (better known as the Battlestar Galactica guy who wasn’t Ron Moore). And then Eick left and Fontana came back, so this was clearly a show in trouble. As if to confirm that hypothesis, NBC took the series, which was supposed to debut much earlier this year, and confined it to the summer wasteland.
So despite all of that, The Philanthropist? It isn’t half bad! There’s stupid stuff in it, sure, but Fontana has found a new twist on the old “only one man, one tortured, brooding genius, stands between evil and good.” It’s basically House with no medicine and a billionaire who decides to try and help the less-advantaged folks of the world. Each week, our globetrotting hero will drop into some other country and find a problem that needs fixing, then go about using his cash and his numerous connections to fix that problem. It’s not the world’s most original set-up for a show, but Fontana’s shows rarely have hugely original set-ups. They’re all about the execution.
The best thing about The Philanthropist is that cast Fontana’s assembled. It’s hard to see how all of these people are going to be in every episode, but Jesse L. Martin and Neve Campbell both turn up as associates of hero Teddy Rist, and Omar from The Wire (Michael Kenneth Williams, whom I hope never tires of critics introducing him as “Omar from The Wire”) is his driver. Also, perky redhead Lindy Booth, who was one of the few bright spots on October Road (where her character was literally named “Pizza Girl”), turns up in the thankless role of Teddy’s thankless assistant. This is to say nothing of all of the cool little guest stars around the edges of the show, like the cool bartender Teddy tells his story to or his grief-stricken ex-wife, who is trying to paint over the room of their dead son.
But the finest member of this cast is James Purefoy, better known as Marc Antony on Rome, who plays our central guy with a sort of deadpan charm and manages to make him seem like a do-gooder who’s not too good, a tricky task. It’s clear that Fontana wants this show to examine some of the less savory aspects of why a man would attempt to assuage some of the guilt he has for being a privileged man in a world of underprivileged people. A character asks him, point blank, if he’s just trying to help get cholera vaccine to a Nigerian village in desperate need of it to try to clean up his own soul or if he genuinely wants to help. In Fontana and Purefoy’s hands, this question isn’t as easily answered as NBC might want it to be, which is perhaps why this has been relegated to summer.
Throughout, though, Purefoy’s charm and easy wit keep a show that could be too sappy from getting, well, too sappy. Towards the end of the pilot, Rist gets to his feet in the jungle and FOLLOWS THE GHOST OF HIS DEAD SON TO THE VILLAGE HE’S DELIVERING THE VACCINE TO, and while my mind recognized it as the stupidest thing I’d ever seen, everything else kind of wanted to go with it, so potent was the look of both grief and determination on Purefoy’s face. Once The Philanthropist is inevitably canceled, he’s going to end up in the lead of a show on Fox where he solves crimes by examining people’s shoe sizes, and it’s going to run for years, and we’re all going to wonder why he’s wasting his talents there. But he’ll probably make that show watchable!
I don’t want to intimate that this is somehow a terribly good show. It’s not, at least not yet. But it’s an engaging enough trifle with a pretty good question to build a TV show around at its center – when you’re trying to do good, does it matter what your motive is? In the pilot alone, there are a ton of stupid, stupid moments that I wouldn’t even come close to excusing on most other shows but here, because you can tell that Fontana’s heading toward a deeper examination of the show’s central premise than the pilot (or even the network) might want him to and when Purefoy’s just having so much fun being a likable rogue and when the African footage is so damned good-looking, it’s tempting to just give the whole thing a pass.
Put another way, this is yet another show where the main character tells his life story to a guest star (that bartender, whom I hope the series tries to shoehorn in as a series regular somehow) as a way to give us the necessary backstory we need to understand the pilot, but because it’s Fontana and Purefoy, they have fun with the whole concept. Rist lies, jokes and goofs his way through the story, generally proving himself an agreeably unreliable narrator. It’s an old idea, yes, but in skilled hands, the execution makes it seem just new enough to make it an enjoyable summer diversion.
- NBC didn’t get me a screener in time, which is why this is up so late. Fortunately, though, because I didn’t have a screener, I was able to see Williams and Booth in a series of ads for Microsoft’s new search engine Bing, which loosely connected to the plot of the show. These ads were perhaps the worst things I’d ever seen, and I’m grateful for the offhand opportunity to have seen them so I can someday tell my grandkids about how much worse we had it back in the day.
- Alan Sepinwall points out that the stunt man was wearing shoes during the motorcycle scenes, while Purefoy as Rist was not. I'm sad I didn't catch this, as it was hilarious to see on a rewatch.
- I'll probably stick with this show in the season to come. If it turns into something great, I'll try and let you know.