Posted by: yannaungoak | July 2, 2009

The Philanthropist Episode 2: Myanmar

The Philanthropist Episode 2: Myanmar

The Philanthropist Episode 2: Myanmar (source: IMDB)

Oooh! I didn’t even have to wait long. Like I said in this earlier post, I definitely have to comment about the second episode to the new TV series, “The Philanthropist”. It’s streaming on Hulu right now, so go watch it before you read this post, it’s full of spoilers, and you won’t know anything about what I’m saying until you’ve watched it. Here’s the link.

And also, pardon my language, I might get a little carried away.

This show should have a disclaimer: “MISINFORMATION ALERT! If you know anything at all about the locations featured in this episode, please DO NOT take anything seriously.”

Lets start with the small trivial details.

20 seconds into the show, we discover tell tale signs that no actual Burmese people were involved in the making of the episode. In case anybody in Hollywood wants to make another show or movie about Myanmar, here’s a tip: at the very least pronounce the name of the country correctly! My-an-mar? Yeah, how would you like it if we called you Am-eric-ans?

OK, that was a trivial thing, I’ll let it slide. The next one is more serious. 25 seconds into the show, we discover that the official language of Myanmar is gibberish. Yes, complete, utter gibberish. No attempt whatsoever by the “Burmese” characters in the show to say something that even remotely resembles Burmese. The reason? All the “Burmese” characters were played by Singaporeans and Malaysians. Another tip to filmmakers: there are sizable populations of Burmese immigrants in many parts of the world who would happily fill in as extras for probably half the cost of a Singaporean or Malaysian extra. Yes, cheap labor is something we excel at. In addition to saving money, dear filmmaker, you will also get people who actually speak the language, know the culture, understand the situation in the country, and maybe actually teach you a thing or two you didn’t know about the country that happens to be the subject of your TV show.

But well, since all Asians look alike, I don’t think most people will be fooled. But even so, they don’t all speak alike!

Here’s another tip for the Hollywood filmmaker: maybe you might want to check the exchange rate before you finish writing your script. Pay the taxi driver 200 Kyats as a bribe to risk his life? You know how much money that is? 200 Kyats = US $ 0.20. Yes, and even though you might think everything’s cheaper in the third world, let me tell you, 200 Kyats doesn’t buy you shit. A cup of tea costs more than 200 Kyats. And we’re not talking Starbucks style drink your chai-latte while surfing the internet and listening to jazz music type of tea, we’re talking about sitting on the pavement on a plastic stool while stray dogs are passing by type of tea. And it gets better, the main character Teddy Rist bribes a general by throwing a small stack of 500 Kyat notes on his desk, totaling maybe 30,000 Kyats? Sizable sum? You know, the guy you’re bribing probably spends that much money every morning on breakfast cereal.

There’s a ton of other details that made the episode a totally hilarious/tragicomic experience for me, but lets get on to the big one. The main plot point. Maybe this is the mentality of every American when getting to a country like Myanmar, and I pray that it’s not really the case in real life, but guess what our hero Teddy Rist does once he gets into the country? He tries to sneak into the house of you know who… Oh wait, that sounds vaguely familiar. Dear makers of the Philanthropist, do you by any chance READ THE FRIGGIN NEWS?! It is not even funny. Seriously. And that’s the main plot point for the episode. Yup.

And so, I did not enjoy this episode. I guess the only way I can possibly enjoy this is if I imagine that I know nothing about Myanmar. As for the first episode, it felt like a cross between 24 and Carmen Sandiego. If all you knew about the country was hopeless stereotypes, it was quite enjoyable, and actually quite commendable as a new creative direction for TV. I’m all for increasing awareness of the plight of third world countries.

I’m quite agnostic though, and strongly skeptical about the whole way of thinking that is evoked by these films and TV shows about third world countries, lets call it the “white man’s burden” genre. Take the portrayal of Idi Amin in the Last King of Scotland, you’d be forgiven for thinking he was a more cheerful version of Cleveland from Family Guy, instead of a cannibalistic madman that he actually was. On the one hand, you have this “attempt” at making the third world characters more humane, adding more realism to these people whom most Westerners would associate with bad stereotypes. On the other hand, you have the Scottish doctor guy, who goes in there, messes everything up, has a ton of fun along the way, and comes out unscathed, while a ton of people had to sacrifice themselves on his behalf. You know, the classic Chuck Norris stuff. The scary thing is, this kind of adventurism isn’t as fictional as we’d all like to think, as recent events suggest.

But its all wrong. Their attempts to bring third world characters to more realistic levels fail big time, because the actual reality is still much more complex then their attempts at character development would allow. And why can’t third world countries actually be treated like normal countries from the storytelling perspective, and not just a playground for your American hero to have an adventure in. Well, I guess its the inherent limitations of television and movies as a medium, especially television and movies designed to perform commercially well for a Western audience. Like I said, I’m strongly skeptical but agnostic, because I do believe even this kind of misinformation has its uses.



  1. Good review. It was already obvious that this show was self-important and condescending in that Hollywood “white man saving the savages” kinda way, but the fact that they do not even bother to check the exchange rate or have the non-English dialogue be in the actual language of the country they are in makes it even worse.

  2. I don’t know if this show serves anybody anywhere some vague form of utility. It’s woeful lack of information, veiled under a thin mask of some perceived ‘charm’, makes a mockery of the real development work a lot of people are trying to do in the world.

    Even if it does spread word of the plight of people in these countries, it’s not doing much in the way of convincing people to play a larger role, or make an investment in development. It depicts a billionaire playboy using his ‘charm’ (aka wallet) to get his way in the developing world. Increasing investment in a company in Myanmar, likely rife with human rights abuses and child labour infractions, is totally worth it if one girl gets a kidney transplant. At least, it is if you totally get to nail the steamy French doctor who phonetically pronounces junta (who does that?).

    I do love that Purefoy can ‘just visit’ the President’s house too – I guess he’s not too concerned that she gets detained for another five to ten years. Leaving Myanmar under the junta for even longer? Totally worth a five minute conversation.

    Also, I hugely enjoy the fact that he tosses around the equivalent of a few dollars at high ranking genereals and they totally fall for it, making people in the developing world look even more desperate than they really are.

    The show is a misnomer. It should be called the Misanthropist.

  3. Dude, the bottom line is that it is a terrible terreble show. Forget about not being able to accurately portarying a foreign country, the show doesn’t even know how to tell the story of its main character, Teddy. The background commentary of Teddy’s friend is so ineffective, lame and boring. Also this show is a waste of good acting talents too. The black dude that went with Teddy to Burma is one of my favorite character in another show (“The Wire” which I recommend you to watch because it is AWESOME!) and it seems that the only reason he was there in Burma is to save Teddy ass when their “decoy” plan needed another “decoy”. This show is so lame that the taste that it leaves behind is similar to the taste that one has in the morning after smoking too much cigarette the night before.
    So, I don’t expect this show to reveal the complexity of a situation in a third world country. I also don’t expect it to be on air for much longer.

  4. I totally agree with your review, esp about showing third world countries from a story telling perspective and not a backdrop.

    Also, it’s okay if they show the Burmese ‘stop’ sign upside down. It’s still okay if the guy’s cell phone works perfect in the middle of the jungle, but it was sad when they play Indian/Chinese music for Burmese scenes.

  5. Man, that was one heck of stupid show I’ve seen in a while. At first, I thought it’s gonna be pretty interesting but throughout the whole episode, I was pretty flaming with anger! It’s good that you took time to actually evaluate it.

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