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The Art of Living Well: An Advance Review of NBC's "The Philanthropist"

"Happiness is the art of living well."

We're told this in the opening minutes of NBC's new drama The Philanthropist by the series' main character, billionaire playboy Teddy Rist (Rome's James Purefoy). He's the sort of tycoon who is just as at home in the bedroom as he is in the boardroom, bedding young, lithe things and selling the planet's natural resources with equal relish. But for Teddy, there's a false air to his statement, as if he's trying way too hard to believe in the triteness of that aphorism.

What follows then is part adventure story, part spiritual awakening saga as Teddy must come to grips with his own humanity as he discovers that happiness isn't material possessions (especially for a man with a Gulfstream as a toy) but rather philanthropy. He comes to this conclusion during the hurricane-induced flooding of a Nigerian resort, where he saves the life of a young African boy who would have been left to drown had it not been for his intervention.

Teddy has problems of his own. He's still reeling from the death of his young son a year earlier and is bitterly estranged from his ex-wife (The Starter Wife's Krista Allen), who is attempting to move on with her life. He's attracted to Olivia (Burn Up's Neve Campbell), the head of his company's charitable foundation... who also happens to be the wife of his best friend and partner Philip Maidstone (Law & Order's Jesse L. Martin).

Despite all of their concerns, Teddy channels his energies into locating the boy he saved during the hurricane and ends up traveling back to Nigeria to do so, where he encounters corruption, depravity, and genuine suffering. Can this billionaire use his resources to help the helpless? Well, yeah.

So it's back to Nigeria, where he's accompanied by his bodyguard Dax Vahagn (The Wire's Michael Kenneth Williams) and A.J. Butterfield, a flame-haired special projects executive (The 4400's Lindy Booth) and ends up alone, shot at, bitten by snakes, and wandering deliriously in the jungle in order to deliver vaccine to a remote medical clinic.

Which could be interesting, if The Philanthropist weren't itself so damned trite. For all of its efforts to do something Important and Well-Intentioned, the series winds up being just as shallow and manipulative as the Old Teddy himself.

There's nothing deep or innovative about this series, despite a concept that could have allowed for the psychological exploration of a man with all the money and power in the world who is unable to find happiness in his life. Which is a shame as Purefoy himself brings his usual charming swagger to the role whereas others might have gone through the motions once they saw the predictable plot unfolding.

Given Teddy's vast resources, nothing is impossible and he continually attempts to use bribery as a means to an end, resulting in a drama that has very little stakes and little emotional hook. Yes, it's certainly philanthropic that Teddy has taken an interest in the little people around the world who don't have corner offices in skyscrapers, but given the economic crisis at the moment it's disconcerting to see Teddy throwing money around quite so brazenly.

Likewise, The Philanthropist's supporting cast gets precious little to do other than express vexation at Teddy's quixotic ways. The sensational Michael K. Williams--so dynamic and memorable as The Wire's Omar--doesn't have much to do here except deliver three lines of dialogue and scowl at Teddy. Neve Campbell and Jesse L. Martin are completely one-dimensional ciphers of privilege.

But even more confounding is the series' unintentionally hilarious efforts to make Teddy into a inspirational figure. We're meant to think that his trek through the Nigerian jungle is a Herculean feat, given that he is unceremoniously dumped out of a helicopter by DEA agents (who point him in the direction of the clinic rather than, you know, giving the billionaire friend of the president a lift), has his satellite phone and watch taken by a local farmer, rides barefoot on a motorcycle, and gets shot at by rebels. Who knew humanitarian aid missions could be so much fun? (I kept waiting in vain for Lost's smoke monster to rise up out of the ground and pound Teddy.)

Are his actions motivated by the need to help his fellow man? Or his guilt over his son's death? The link between the two is handled with all of the finesse of an anvil as Teddy's recollections about his son become inexorably entangled with that of the boy he saved... and, after receiving a snake bite in the jungle's heart of darkness, Teddy even hallucinates, seeing a vision of his dead son leading him to safety. Ugh.

Ultimately, The Philanthropist tries to manifest its heart and soul in Teddy's struggle to do good but this overwrought series didn't in any way win me over by resorting to such sentimental trickery rather than constructing a compelling story. Consider me just as skeptical as the bartender Teddy meets along the way.

The Philanthropist launches tonight at 10 pm ET/PT on NBC.


joy said…
As usual, your assessment is Spot. On.

I saw it last night, and completely agree with your assessment. I'm hoping that we get to see his character grow, because honestly, I *was* a little put off by Teddy Rist. (And Neve's halter top, but that's another story.)

It's funny that you focused on the characters so much - because Barry Levinson mentioned how he and Fontana are very much in it *for* the characters.

But you didn't mention how beautifully shot it was! Or the bing tie-in!

Of course, I'm giving it a shot and will likely end up watching all 8 episodes, because that's what I do. (Then again, I'm also the only person I know who bothers to watch Secret Life of an American Teenager.)
Radha said…
"I kept waiting in vain for Lost's smoke monster to rise up out of the ground and pound Teddy."

Now THAT would be entertaining!
James Purefoy is perfect at playing the bad boy and I just can't imagine him in this sickly sweet series. I want to see him bloodied in battle and seducing women, not delivering vaccines to small, orphan children. Gosh, I miss Rome.

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