What would have happened if Bruce Wayne never donned the cape and cowl? What if he had used his vast resources to cure society's ills in a more direct manner rather than the path he chose to follow? I suspect The Philanthropist comes awfully close to answering these questions. A charismatic performance from James Purefoy guides this show through occasionally choppy thematic waters to some very interesting destinations.
Teddy Rist (James Purefoy) runs the Maidstone-Rist Corporation along with his friend Philip Maidstone (Jesse L. Martin). Since their corporation deals in natural resources, Teddy often finds himself in far-flung places negotiating deals in highly undesirable circumstances. As the show opens, he's in Nigeria trying to close an oil deal when he's caught in the middle of a hurricane. While evacuating, he ends up saving the life of a little boy drowning in flood waters. This event turns out to be the catalyst required to awaken Teddy's charitable spirit. From that point on, he takes on increasingly risky challenges across the planet using his wealth and power to help the downtrodden. Along the way he gets shot at by rebels, plays negotiator between nations and challenges assorted despots in the name of the greater good.
Given that the show had a limited run of 8 episodes; it sure covered a lot of ground. Teddy's adventures take him to Nigeria, Myanmar, Paris, Kosovo, San Diego, Kashmir and Haiti with another stop in Nigeria sandwiched in the middle. The show takes an interesting approach to the material and doesn't really go for a 'season' long arc. There are flashes of character growth in Teddy to be sure but the adventures themselves are fairly standalone in nature. Taken with the excellent production values and cinematic look, they often feel like mini-movies. It's also a credit to the writers that they are able to create a variety of thrilling scenarios to drop Teddy into while delivering bold statements on human rights rooted in present day situations. Although they occasionally strain credibility with resolutions that are a little too convenient and high-minded, I give them kudos for often following the stories to conclusions that are grounded in the realities of the world we live in. Teddy's jaunt to Myanmar is a perfect example of this. By the end of the episode we see that Teddy may have won small victories that are personally gratifying but in order to do so he has to make a moral compromise on a corporate scale. This realization is writ large on Purefoy's expressive face and strikes home like a sledgehammer.
In case I've made the show sound too dramatic and deadly serious, I want to make it clear that this is a morality play as acted out in Jason Bourne's world. To that end, Teddy is often reckless and impulsive making the show all the better for it. He gets into scrapes and then spends much of each episode finding the most action-packed way out of them. It helps that the episodes are lensed in a manner that is more cinematic and unfettered by normal TV show budgets. The general tone of the show is also helped by the choice of framing devices used to hook the viewer. Almost every episode opens with Teddy talking to an unidentified person while covering the adventure through a series of flashbacks. Sometimes this is used to comical effect as in the first visit to Nigeria, when Teddy is seen telling the story to a female bartender who becomes increasingly skeptical of what she considers to be a tall tale. At other times, the framing scenes deepen the mystery of the show. By the end of each episode, the identity of Teddy's listener is revealed in a fashion that links them deeply to the tale that Teddy just told them. Sometimes this highlights Teddy's audacity, sometimes his compassion but it is always interesting.
Although the focus of each episode is the adventure at hand, I don't want to lose sight of the cast of characters. Neve Campbell plays Olivia, Philip's wife and manager of Maidstone-Rist's charitable foundation. She occupies the critical role of Philip's confidante and Teddy's moral compass. Acting opposite her, Jesse L. Martin has the thankless role of playing Philip as the naysayer that Teddy must prove wrong with his latest courageous escapade. Dax (Michael K. Williams) and A.J. (Lindy Booth) are other characters who aid Teddy in his missions. Dax is Teddy's bodyguard with a military past while A.J. is the Director of Special Projects at Maidstone-Rist who often functions as Teddy's Girl Friday. All this brings me to Teddy himself. The Rist character is a juicy one and Purefoy attacks it with relish. He pitches the tone of his billionaire playboy somewhere between Tony Stark and Bruce Wayne. He is cheeky, charming, impulsive and most of all, convincing. Best of all, he can turn on a dime to reveal the depth of Teddy's pain from recently losing his young son. This loss hangs over him in every episode and ultimately propels him to nobler pursuits. If charity comes from within then Teddy's charity blooms like a flower from the darker side of his soul.
The show was presented in a 1.78:1 aspect ratio with anamorphic enhancement. The dynamic cinematography of the show was often breathtaking. It accurately captured the sheen of Teddy's high life while lingering on the gritty washed out colors of his international adventures. I did notice a slight shimmer during a few quick pans and some color banding during early jungle scenes but this wasn't too intrusive.
The audio was presented in English 5.1 Dolby Digital. Although favoring the front surrounds over the rear surrounds quite a bit, I found the audio mix to be quite pleasing. It probably helped that the show was filled with fascinating musical cues. Given the globetrotting nature of Teddy's travels, the selections of local music helped to appropriately set the scene.
Subtitles were available in English for the deaf and hard of hearing.
With 8 episodes strung together like mini movies featuring the billionaire playboy Teddy Rist, The Philanthropist was an interesting blend of morality play and action film. A layered and bold performance by Purefoy in the lead role helped give us a show that is occasionally heavy-handed but ultimately inspiring. With an adequate audio and video presentation, this release is worth watching and comes Recommended.