TV Preview: Tom Shales on NBC's 'The Philanthropist'

By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 24, 2009

In the age of Bernie Madoff and seemingly countless other corporate crooks, launching a show about a softhearted, do-good gazillionaire takes a certain amount of courage -- or maybe a certain amount of chutzpah. "The Philanthropist," premiering tonight on NBC, asks us to buy the concept of a filthily rich industrialist who decides to be Mr. Sweetheart and dole out dough to those in need.

At first blush (and NBC probably should be blushing), the show sounds like an update of "The Millionaire," a golden-age anthology about a rich old dude (a few million bucks made you rich back then) who anonymously handed out cashier's checks for $1 million each to people struggling to stay afloat -- though his beneficiaries weren't always necessarily broke.

Such is not the case. Rich Teddy Rist, supposedly based on a real Daddy Warbucks and played somewhat dashingly by James Purefoy, was "a hedonistic billionaire," NBC says, until he had to face the traumatizing tragedy of his little boy's death. That happened a year before tonight's premiere begins, with Rist rushing over to Nigeria and back in a desperate effort to deliver a needed vaccine to imperiled children there.

It's a little ironic for the producers to have chosen Nigeria as the show's first stop, since that country has been home to many an Internet scam involving rich old geezers who supposedly left fortunes to random strangers in the United States. In fact, yours truly receives three or four of these entreaties a week -- not always from Nigeria, but more frequently from there than anywhere else. If only my real relatives had left me as much moola as these far-flung phonies have, not that I've yet to see a nickel.

At any rate, Rist's welcome in Nigeria (actually South Africa, where location shooting is much easier) is hardly royal. The country "is in the middle of a nervous breakdown," he says in narration, and he finds himself trapped between the proverbial opposing factions, everybody armed but him. In the course of shlepping a small package of vaccine hither and thither, he meets a little boy who has no one to care for him, though one can't help thinking there would be many little boys, and little girls, in similar straits with so much warfare going on.

Whatever, the kid obviously reminds Rist of the child he lost, and he takes special care to help him. When the two become separated, even a mildly experienced viewer will expect them to be reunited just before the final fade-out, and that just may very well possibly perhaps be the case (far be it from us to give that kind of stuff away).

There is a crowd of exceptional talent behind this series. Executive producers include Barry Levinson and Tom Fontana, and the premiere was directed very imaginatively by Peter Horton, onetime heartthrob of "thirtysomething." Horton may in fact reach too frequently into his bag of editing and photographic bells and whistles, but for the most part his approach helps sustain interest when the teleplay falters, sputters or just plain poops out.

Rist is described at one point as "the 99th-richest person in the world" and he isn't modest about it; tonight's story is supposedly being recounted by Rist to a sexy bartender he is trying to impress. She, of course, remains skeptical until the very end -- whereas viewers might reasonably remain skeptical even beyond that.

The Philanthropist (one hour) debuts tonight at 10 on NBC.

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