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Ready for 'The Philanthropist'?

“The Philanthropist,” premiering tonight on NBC, is a gorgeous-looking bit of earnest junk whose pilot bears the estimable names of Tom Fontana and Barry Levinson ("Oz," "Homicide: Life on the Street") as executive producers. Fontana also wrote the script -- from a "concept developed by" Charlie Corwin and Jim Juvonen -- and reportedly worked on a few more before he and Levinson departed the show over a question of tone. (The network wanted it to be more fun; you can see their warring approaches on screen.) The series is being described as an "eight-part drama," which is a nice way of saying it won't be back to prey on your conscience in the fall, or ever.

The gist is this: Pained playboy billionaire Teddy Rist, played by James Purefoy ("Rome"), saves a young boy from drowning when a hurricane hits Nigeria, where Teddy has gone on business. (There is some resonance here with the Child He Couldn't Save, a dead son.) Back home, among business partners Jesse L. Martin and Neve Campbell, he has a kind of delayed epiphany, and returns to Africa, where he is both bewitched and appalled by the lives of the ordinary poor, to offer his help (and find that kid). When he finds his path blocked, he goes off-road -- carrying cholera vaccine by helicopter, motorcycle and finally by snake-bitten foot -- to become what NBC press releases call a "vigilante philanthropist," in bold defiance of the overwhelmingly negative connotations of the word "vigilante."

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