The new NBC drama, The Philanthropist is… really quite good! Now look, it is easy to criticize the show. It isn’t perfect. But this is prime time entertainment, not a documentary. I’ll probably lose a little street cred in professional philanthropy circles, but gosh darn it I really enjoyed it!
There are two keys to understanding the show 1) At this point, the protagonist is focused on the self expressive element of philanthropy (just like most individual donors are, as I wrote in a recent Chronicle of Philanthropy column) and 2) The show makes clear that the protagonist is a novice, who really doesn’t know what he’s doing.
During the intro voice over, Teddy Rist (the lead character) says, “I know a lot of people who are living well, but aren’t happy. But I’m happy. Sometimes my demons chase me. Sometimes I chase them.” Rist’s focus during the show is on delivering vaccines to a village cut off due to a flood. He is particularly focused on one boy who he helped save from drowning early in the show. But Rist doesn’t risk his life out of a pure Mother Theresa-like focus on others. He is “chasing his demons” as the show makes clear when Rist dreams of his own son as he searches for the boy he is trying to save. On the other hand, Rist is not simply motivated to make himself feel good either. He is honestly trying to help. Is he naive? Of course! So are all donors when they first get serious about giving!
The self-expressive element of giving is defined by Peter Frumkin as “supporting the self actualization of the donor.” In his book Strategic Giving, Frumkin argues that this element of philanthropy is routinely looked down upon or dismissed as selfish by institutional philanthropy, but in fact it is a positive self reinforcing cycle that leads to philanthropy benefiting donors and the public. It is a positive thing that philanthropy is beneficial to the donor, not something we should frown upon as if our own giving is somehow more purely sacrificial.
But Rist does so many things wrong! Shouldn’t we criticize the show for all the flaws in how Rist attempts to do good? Of course he makes mistakes. He has no idea what he’s doing and the show knows this. When Rist requires hot coffee before he can evacuate during the flood, the show is making fun of him. When the vaccine is stuck in customs, Rist assumes throwing money at any problem will fix it and so he bribes the customs agent. But the show knows it isn’t that simple and Rist’s plan fails.
Does the show suggest that philanthropy is fun and easy as Council on Foundation CEO Steve Gunderson said in an official statement yesterday? The poor guy manages to do nothing more than move a small bag of vaccines from the airport to a village! He spends $250,000 on a plane ride alone (which gets him dumped by himself in the jungle). He gets bit by a snake. He wanders barefoot in the jungle. Fun and easy? Rist doesn’t solve any huge problems in the show. The show doesn’t suggest that everything is OK now that Rist’s on the scene. He’s one man, naively trying to help, who through force of will and a lot of money manages to score a small victory.
One thing to remember about the show is that because of its title, we view everything through a different lens. But what if we just think about the show as a prime time summer TV show that is trying to pick up an audience bored with reruns? When Rist let’s the boy take his spot on the raft and then dives in the water to save him from drowning, the show is not suggesting that he is some sort of do gooder superhero. James Bond, Indiana Jones, or any other hero of an action flick would have done the same thing.
Are their problems with the show? Definitely. Jeff Trexler criticizes the show for promoting neocolonialism and he makes very good points. Was the fact that Rist sleeps with the local doctor who he brings the vaccines to bizarre and unsettling? Definitely.
Somehow I keep imaging a group from the American Medical Association sitting around watching the first episode of ER and complaining. It’s not realistic! That’s not how an ER room works! Why are those doctors sleeping with each other?!
Come on! It’s a fun TV show. Let’s enjoy it and be glad that once a week American TV audiences will hear the voice over proclaim “The Philanthropist!” as if that’s actually something fun and exciting instead of the idea of philanthropy as a boring, stuffy, serious thing that no sane person would want to be involved in.