Thursday, June 25, 2009

Pilot Review: The Philanthropist

The Philanthropist (NBC)
Premiered June 24 at 10pm

So far this summer, NBC has premiered three new series, two of which were imported, one from Canada, one from the United Kingdom. “The Philanthropist” is NBC’s first original offering this season. Starting a show during the summer often implies it isn’t destined for a long life, like NBC’s lottery winners drama “Windfall” from a few years ago. Often they’re jam-packed with a number of actors who might have starred in several other failed shows in the past (Lana Parilla, for example, who went from “Windfall” to CBS’ cancelled “Swingtown” last summer). Usually, there’s some intrigue or theme that might place it exclusively in the summer (like, say, “Burn Notice”) or just a more relaxed feel to it that denotes its sunny season. In the case of “The Philanthropist,” only the last thing is really true – it’s hardly determined to get anywhere fast.

James Purefoy, formerly of “Rome,” stars as a wealthy playboy who questions his excessive, meaningless lifestyle when his hotel room in Nigeria floods and he sees the look in a child’s eyes as they are being rescued. It’s quite a leap for Purefoy’s character Teddy Rist – who used to operate carelessly slickly and now rides barefoot on a motorcycle to deliver a vaccine to a small Nigerian village while ducking gunshots. His story is introduced in the form of a nonchalant confession to a waitress, whose disbelief overshadows her potential enjoyment of the tale. That’s even truer for the show – it’s too lavish and grand-sweeping on an individual scale to be realistically compelling. Billionaire Rist isn’t content to put all of his funds towards charitable means; he has to see that they can personally delivered to the doorstep of the needy. By him. On a motorcycle. Barefoot. Avoiding gunshots.

In addition to being flat-out ridiculous, there’s almost nothing tethering “The Philanthropist” to reality. Rist doesn’t seem to have any priorities or actual work holding him back, and he feels completely alright dragging his staff, including a secretary and a driver, to a foreign country with only a moment’s notice. Purefoy is quite charismatic, but the role’s just too broadly written to be believable. Rist doesn’t possess superpowers, but you’d think it to read an episode description. Don’t look to the supporting cast to offer much – Neve Campbell and Jesse L. Martin, his business partners, aren’t given much to do, and Martin isn’t even credited as a series regular in the pilot. Michael K. Williams (The Kill Point) could provide good comic relief or dramatic guidance as Rist’s driver, but he hardly has any lines. Ditto Lindy Booth as his secretary, though she’ll likely play a bigger part as the show goes on.

The series’ most obnoxious trait is its product placement. It looks like Microsoft’s new search engine, Bing, is paying for the entire show. Twice during the actual episode, the Bing logo popped up for several seconds in the bottom right-hand corner of the frame. When the show broke for commercials, the actors appeared, in character, discussing where Rist might go next as if it was part of the show. They referenced and used Bing to pinpoint his potential location, and Booth even praised Bing’s constantly changing background images. Product integration is one thing, like Sarah working at sponsor Subway on “Chuck” or “One Tree Hill” promoting a real-life clothes line, but this is just too transparent. The show may as well not be about the adventures of Teddy Rist, but instead the philanthropic enterprises of one spectacular new search engine. If that sounds interesting to you, go ahead and check out this show. Otherwise, go on Bing and search for Nigeria. It will be more productive.

How will it work as a series? Is he obsessed with Nigeria or is he going to travel to a different impoverished country every episode? It’s hard to tell. The pilot failed in that sense in setting up the show as a continuing story. If Purefoy’s dynamic enough, though, he could very well serve as the show’s token vehicle that makes the plot all but irrelevant. Slim chance – I think this show will get stuck somewhere in the jungles of Africa.
How long will it last? There’s no way this thing is outliving the summer, and it may even get killed earlier because it’s not a reality show, which NBC usually sticks to during the summers. The ratings were pretty good for the pilot, so I imagine this show will quietly finish out its current eight-episode order without any fanfare other than the hype NBC itself drums up.

Pilot grade: F

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