Proof that the road to ratings hell is paved with good intentions, NBC presents “The Philanthropist” (9 p.m., NBC) during the summer silly season. It’s an odd time to trot out a globe-spanning yarn about a cynical tycoon-turned-do-gooder. Rest assured, “The Philanthropist” couldn’t find an audience in the dead of winter, either.
James Purefoy (“Rome”) stars as Teddy Rist, a brash dealmaker at the top of the corporate ladder whose world begins to disintegrate after the death of his young son. During a trip to Africa to negotiate an oil deal with the notoriously corrupt Nigerian government, he has an epiphany of sorts when he risks his life to save a young boy.
He returns to New York and his boardroom and his partner, Philip (Jesse L. Martin, “Law & Order”), and Philip’s wife, Olivia (Neve Campbell), only to announce that he must return to Africa.
Rist is hardly a one-dimensional character. His turn toward charity does not deter him from consorting with the ladies, or even taking advice and aid from drug dealers and other compromised characters. Unfortunately, the pilot unfolds almost entirely in flashbacks, as Rist narrates his life story to a pretty barmaid in an outback town.
Heavy reliance on voice-over is almost always a dead giveaway that the neither the action nor the character’s motivation can carry the story on their own. “Philanthropist” features some nice photography and globe-trotting production values, but the drama, like the self-obsessed Rist, just can’t seem to get out of its own way.
• A “Primetime” (9 p.m., ABC) special broadcasts directly from the White House, where President Obama will field questions relating to health care reform.
• With the eyes of the world focused on post-election Iran, the documentary “Be Like Others” (7 p.m., HBO2) looks at a little-known facet of the Islamic Republic.
The theocracy forbids homosexuality under punishment of death but allows sex-change operations and offers a tacit acceptance of transsexuality. The film looks at how the lives of many gay men and women have been changed and surgically altered by this peculiar legal loophole.
Tonight’s other highlights
• Alison Lohman stars in “Flicka” (7 p.m., FX), the 2006 update of the beloved novel “My Friend Flicka.”
• Tom Cruise, Jack Nicholson and Nicole Kidman appear in the 2001 documentary “Stanley Kubrick: A Life in Pictures” (7 p.m., TCM), an appreciation of the director’s films, including “Dr. Strangelove” (9:30 p.m.) and “Lolita” (11:15 p.m.).
• The two-hour film “The Music Instinct: Science and Song” (8 p.m., PBS, check local listings) puts musical appreciation under the microscope. Dr. Daniel Levitin and Bobby McFerrin host this program featuring artists from the fields of classical, jazz, rap and rock.
• Evidence in a car’s trunk proves crucial on “CSI: NY” (9 p.m., CBS).
• “True Hollywood Story” (9 p.m., E!) profiles illusionist Criss Angel.
• Strangers meet and share lodgings in Cancun, Mexico, on the 22nd season opener of “The Real World” (9 p.m., MTV).