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 (Homicide: Life on the Street) wrote the pilot teleplay, got fired, then got rehired.
Against all odds, the premiere at 10 p.m. Wednesday 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, Rome) tells his story to a comely bartender in flashback, recounting his adventures attempting to deliver vaccines to an African village after he saved a young boy from a nearby village from drowning during a hurricane. Rist also tells viewers at home about this through the use of narration, probably a little too much.
Through the hour, Fontana's teleplay slowly reveals Rist's background, including a family tragedy and his relationship with business partner Philip Maidstone (Jesse L. Martin, Law & Order) and Maidstone's wife, Olivia (Neve Campbell, Party of Five), 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.
The Block News Alliance consists of The Blade and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Rob Owen is the TV editor for the Post-Gazette.
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