In recent years, the category of "fun summer show" -- a briskly paced and well-produced series often built around a charming central character -- has been the near-exclusive dominion of cable channels like USA Network and TNT. Scripted shows on the broadcast networks in the summer, however, still carry the stigma of being not good enough for the regular season.
Delays in production are primarily what pushed "The Philanthropist" into NBC's summer lineup, but that may turn out not to be a bad thing for the show. It may not be a great series, but thanks in large part to a well-rounded performance from star James Purefoy, "The Philanthropist" delivers a diverting hour of TV that fits right in with the "Burn Notices" and "Closers" of the world.
Purefoy (HBO's "Rome") plays Teddy Rist, a billionaire who makes his living off exploiting natural resources and rather enjoys his life. While in Nigeria to work a business deal, though, he comes to realize that the token amount of money his company sets aside for charitable work isn't really enough -- and that he wants to get personally involved in doing more.
Over the objections of his business partner, Philip Maidstone ("Law & Order's" Jesse L. Martin), and Philip's wife, Olivia (Neve Campbell) -- who runs the company's charitable foundation and was once involved with Teddy -- Teddy heads back to Nigeria, figuring he'll grease a few palms, deliver some food, medicine and other supplies, and head back home a better man.
To the show's credit, though, Teddy doesn't have nearly that easy a time of it as he finds that his money and fame won't open every door and that he has to work with some less-than-desirable characters to get the results he wants. Even those he's trying to help, like a doctor at a struggling health clinic, call him out on his motives.
Executive producer Tom Fontana, who wrote the pilot, then left the series for a time before rejoining it, has given Martin's and Campbell's characters enough shading that they're not just the naysayers standing by while Teddy goes off on his latest adventure. Lindy Booth ("October Road") and Michael Kenneth Williams ("The Wire") also do decent work with not much material in Wednesday's premiere.
But "The Philanthropist" is pretty much entirely in Purefoy's hands, and he runs with it. It's easy to see that Teddy's experience in changes him, but he doesn't do a 180-degree shift from rakish playboy to self-righteous do-gooder. Even as he becomes more committed to his new line of work, Teddy still ladles on the charm -- even when, as is the case with a disbelieving bartender to whom he recounts the events of the premiere, people aren't buying what he's selling.
Given what NBC is doing to its schedule in the fall, it's hard to see how "The Philanthropist" would find a home during the traditional September-to-May season. But if it does well enough to return next summer, the network could have the makings of a solid summer franchise on its hands.