Against all odds, Philanthropist is quite watchable

There are plenty of reasons to suspect NBC’s The Philanthropist will be awful: It’s airing in the summer dumping ground; it was part of NBC’s terrible 2007-08 development season; and executive producer Tom Fontana wrote the pilot teleplay, got fired and then got rehired.

James Purefoy plays lead role in The Philanthropist.

There are plenty of reasons to suspect NBC’s The Philanthropist will be awful: It’s airing in the summer dumping ground; it was part of NBC’s terrible 2007-08 development season; and executive producer Tom Fontana wrote the pilot teleplay, got fired and then got rehired.

Against all odds, the premiere turns out to be a competent, highly watchable hour of television, the most promising broadcast-network premiere since Southland.

Billionaire playboy Teddy Rist (James Purefoy) tells his story to a comely bartender in flashback, recounting his adventures delivering vaccines to an African village after he saved a young boy from a nearby village from drowning. Rist also tells viewers at home about this through the use of narration, probably a little too much.

Through the hour, the storyline slowly reveals Rist’s background, including a family tragedy and his relationship with business partner Philip Maidstone (Jesse L. Martin,) and Maidstone’s wife, Olivia (Neve Campbell), who runs the company’s charitable foundation.

To its credit, The Philanthropist quickly acknowledges the patronizing notion of a wealthy, white savior swooping in to save the poor, helpless Africans. But the question left hanging over the show is what the series will be on a weekly basis.

Will Rist become a righteous do-gooder, or will The Philanthropist show more nuance and complexity? To live up to its promise, The Philanthropist needs to do more of the latter.

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