The Philanthropist -- TV Review

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"I am so not the heroic type," billionaire Teddy Rist says. "Reckless, yes; Superman, hardly."

If that were true, NBC's new scripted series "The Philanthropist" would be a short one indeed. Instead, aforementioned wealthy guy Rist is in crisis (he lost his young son a year ago), and after the fortuitous rescue of an African child, his world view is upended. Suddenly, he's going to do more than tithe his company's riches to needy charities -- he's going to get involved. That initial effort, to bring vaccines to a small Nigerian village, is met with resistance from all sides.

"Philanthropist's" role in today's anti-big business zeitgeist already has been questioned; it was bought for NBC pre-WGA strike. But creators Charlie Corwin, Tom Fontana and Jim Juvonen take this high-concept premise (with real-life roots) and lend it layers of thought and intrigue. Amid the flashbacks, jump cuts and focus shifts, a stylish and gritty story emerges. Star James Purefoy might be yet another Brit rogue on Yank soil, but his awakening is heartfelt and believable; you want him to be Superman. The fact that his greatest successes come not from an open checkbook but his willingness to barter his possessions is a pointed twist on true riches.

Harder to swallow are the gray areas -- Rist's African awakening conjures tired tropes of white-man's guilt and the "magical Negro," both of which go unaddressed. Sure, he gets a refreshing reality check from a dubious local doctor about being a dilettante, but it's all too brief and surfacy. If the series plans on being taken as more than just another action serial, it's going to have to plumb his motivations more deeply, or maybe keep Rist closer to home in future episodes.

For now, this is a well-made thrill ride of a start. Deep inside "Philanthropist" is a smart, earnest yet realistic series waiting to be told, and the pilot makes an intriguing beginning. For now, we can all be Teddy Rist -- and give generously to the cause.

Airdate: 10-11 p.m. Wednesday, June 24 (NBC)
Production: Universal Media Studios, Carnival Films, the Levinson/Fontana Co., Original Media
Cast: James Purefoy, Neve Campbell, Michael Kenneth Williams, Lindy Booth, Krista Allen, Jesse L. Martin
Executive producers: Tom Fontana, Barry Levinson, Peter Horton, Charlie Corwin, Gareth Neame, Teri Weinberg, David Eick (pilot)
Creator-writer: Tom Fontana & Charlie Corwin & Jim Juvonen
Co-executive producer: Jonas Pate, Elle Johnson, Jim Juvonen (pilot)
Consulting producers: John McNamara, Kim Newton, Bobby Sager
Producer: Nigel Marchant, Irene Burns
Director: Peter Horton (pilot)
Director of photography: Joel Ransom
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