“To be honest, I have my share of demons, and sometimes they chase me and sometimes I chase them,” coyly quips the smooth-talking, jet-setting heartthrob millionaire Teddy Rist (James Purefoy) as he whirls around a corner barefoot on a motor bike in a violent, war-torn Nigerian jungle in the new NBC drama The Philanthropist. Teddy has become quite accustomed to getting out of any sticky situation with one of his patented, beckoning smirks and a wad of cash tossed in any general direction. Well, the cash might work still, but now that he has dipped into the philanthropy wing of his large, NYC-based corporation Maidstone-Rist (which deals mainly in big commodities like energy and oil), his good looks may not be enough to save him from the gun-strapped rebel fighters and guerilla warfare lining the streets of Africa.
Never one to give up on a promise, Teddy decides he must return to Africa and bring medicine and supplies to a ravaged Nigerian village, despite the pleas to stay in Manhattan from his business partner and co-CEO, Phillip Maidstone (Jesse L. Martin), and Phillip’s wife and head of the company’s philanthropy wing, Olivia Maidstone (Neve Campbell). He makes it back to Nigeria with his driver, Dax (Michael K. Williams), and loyal secretary (or Director of Special Projects, as she puts it), A.J. Butterfield (Lindy Booth), in tow. Hurling past each death-defying obstacle, including drug lords and snipers, Teddy manages to successfully obtain the illegal vaccines and deliver them to the needy village—ultimately propelled by the memory of his very young, now-deceased son (i.e. one of the “demons” that still haunts him).
Tom Fontana, the man behind such revered TV classics as Homicide: Life on the Street and Oz, has managed to cook up another rivetingly original hour of appointment-television. Thankfully, his scope hasn’t narrowed, as his most recent, eagerly anticipated effort is as incisively polemic and empathic to the harrowing travails of mankind as anything we’ve seen before from his unparalleled, award-winning canon. The cast performs swimmingly as well: Purefoy is a charmed marvel, landing the character of Teddy Rist somewhere on the hunky-hero Richter scale between a gong-ho Indiana Jones and the suave James Bond. If this show takes off, Purefoy (who starred in HBO’s beloved, now-cancelled Rome) should prove another English-crossover success on these shores. It’s hard to fully assess the rest of the players, as their time is limited to mere moments in the pilot, but, from Campbell to Williams, they embody their characters with enough pizzazz to match Purefoy.
NBC has found the diamond in the rough it’s been searching for: a show with limitless potential, exploring all that humanity has to offer with a slight bent of thrill-seeking action and social responsibility. The Philanthropist proves compassionate and insightful, never didactic, and heartily entrenching. Clearly, this level of entertainment will stick out in a summer filled with schlock. Let’s just hope it finds the enlightened, NPR-listening audience it needs to survive.