British actor James Purefoy has had several shots at conquering the New World, and whatever “The Philanthropist’s” fortunes, this international co-production cements his status as someone who seems destined to clear those ramparts. Perfectly cast as wealthy mogul Teddy Rist — who decides to trot the globe, helping the needy and bedding women — Purefoy lends breezy charm to this dramatic co-venture, which fields a topnotch ensemble while initially giving them little to do. Unearthing a Nielsen payday should be challenging, but the show’s a cut above most of the disposable summer filler the networks have offered thus far.
Benefiting from the writing chops of producer Tom Fontana (who shares story credit with Charlie Corwin and Jim Juvonen), the premiere adopts a flashback structure in which Teddy pours out his soul to an attractive barmaid, explaining how he went from the boardroom to Nigeria, trying to deliver vaccine and actually do some genuine good for a change.
Of course, Teddy’s field antics unsettle his corporate right hand (Jesse L. Martin) and said colleague’s wife (Neve Campbell), who shares a personal history with Teddy but, like her husband, is on the payroll helping orchestrate his endeavors.
Teddy’s entourage includes an assistant (Lindy Booth) and bodyguard (“The Wire’s” Michael Kenneth Williams), but they’re basically left as observers while Teddy learns how to be a mensch.
What makes the show tolerable — as opposed to simply manipulative and preachy — is that the protagonist doesn’t become a saint all at once. Rather, as played by Purefoy (shown off to good effect in HBO’s “Rome,” and less so in the recent miniseries “Diamonds”), Teddy is a freewheeling playboy in the Branson mold, which doesn’t mean he can’t feel the loss of his child or yearn to help a wide-eyed African kid he encounters during a pre-credits sequence.
Buoyed by its international locations (and partners to help foot the bill), the series also boasts a big, opulent look, with Teddy just a private plane trip away from wherever his benevolence is needed. Granted, there’s a bit of the Tarzan mystique in all of this — great white U.S. businessman bringing assistance to downtrodden peoples — but Teddy’s flawed, awkward heroism makes that less pronounced and the show more appealing.
The series is loosely inspired by Bobby Sager, who founded his own philanthropic foundation in 2000. It remains to be seen whether Teddy’s work on behalf of the needy can become an unexpected gift to needy NBC, but strictly as light summer entertainment with a touch of heart, “The Philanthropist” delivers.