What Loot, the show on Apple TV+, gets right and wrong about nonprofit and philanthropy

[Image description: A yacht at a port in Corsica France. Image by markusspiske on Pixabay]

Hi everyone. It’s been a while since I’ve written about a TV show. I was scarred by Game of Thrones and its outlandish, horrifying ending (turns out Daenerys, Mother of Dragons, Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, stole classified nuclear documents, kept them at her castle, and engaged in espionage for the White Walkers). But so many people (2) have asked for my opinion on the new show Loot, that I am compelled to dust off my TV analysis skills, which got a significant number (4) of endorsements on my LinkedIn profile.

For folks who have not seen it, there will be **SPOILERS** so please feel free to skip this post if needed. We will be back to regular rants and shenanigans next week.

Loot stars the amazing Maya Rudolph as Molly Wells, who lives a ridiculously lavish life—she gets a yacht on her birthday, and David Chang is her personal chef—with her billionaire tech tycoon husband John Novak (played by Adam Scott). She finds out Novak has been cheating on her, files for divorce, and keeps 87 Billion dollars. Hurt and untethered, she parties hard, embarrasses herself in public, which leads to a phone call from Sofia Salinas (played by Michaela Jaé Rodriguez), the ED of her foundation. Molly had no idea she even had foundation. The ten short episodes follow her as she learns about philanthropy and nonprofit, rediscovers love, and grows as an individual. Clearly this is at least partly inspired by MacKenzie Scott.

It’s nice that Loot exists because there has been a dearth of shows and movies about nonprofit and philanthropy, which is too bad, because our sector is awesome and there’s so much rich material to be mined from it. The last time we were truly represented was in Issa Rae’s Insecure, when her character worked at the nonprofit We Got Y’all.

Generally, I find the show breezy and enjoyable. Rudolph is great, and the characters are for the most part likeable, of diverse backgrounds, and vivid (with the exception of Jean-Pierre, a fellow billionaire who courts Molly; he needs some caffein, because his character is a snooze fest). There are a few things I think the show gets right about our work. For instance, Molly’s general cluelessness—she donates a fleet of $100K SUVs to a nonprofit and gives goodie bags with high-end luxury items to people experiencing homelessness—reflects the many well-meaning but ignorant donors we often have to deal with.

Meanwhile, the fact that despite the foundation staff’s warnings, and her general lack of knowledge about the issues, Molly insists on doing many things her way and steamrollers people because she has money is also an accurate portrayal of a lot of wealthy foundation trustees who insist on setting priorities and strategies and expect nonprofits to comply.

I also appreciate the depictions of the slow and tedious process for getting anything done with City government. After much hard work, they get the City Council to approve their new housing project, which breaks ground in 2026. “It used to be 2028, but we sped it up,” says Sofia proudly.  

On the other hand, there some areas that Loot could improve on. The show seems to be aiming for an easy-going tone and so only provides a rather superficial view of nonprofit and philanthropy. I look at shows that manage to be light and funny while also being really grounded in the occupation or sector they’re trying to portray. Superstore, for example, is set at a Walmart-like store and manages to be hilarious while simultaneously diving into serious subjects like pay inequity and union organizing. Parks and Recreation is brilliant at surfacing universal human themes while depicting the workings of city government. The Bear is funny and poignant while showing what it’s truly like work at a restaurant (it’s hell! Hell!)

Not that anyone working on the show will read this, but in case they do, here are some suggestions about what they could change to make Season 2 of Loot more reflective of nonprofit and philanthropy:

Explore the power dynamics more: In the first episode, Sofia calls Molly and demands a meeting. Sofia then dresses down Molly for her embarrassing behavior that reflects poorly on the foundation. It’s cathartic to see Sofia being a badass and not deferring to Molly throughout the episodes. But I’m not sure that’s how any foundation staff would act toward their primary donor, especially at the first meeting. In our sector, there is omnipresent power dynamics between donors and staff and clients. It is inescapable, and could be played for a lot of laughs as well as deeper messages about how we interact with the rich.  

Introduce the other foundation trustees: The show misses a significant aspect of philanthropy, as well as a treasure trove of comedy gold, by not touching the foundation board at all. Foundation boards hold vast influence in philanthropy, and by their nature are hilarious! Some trustees are great, and others are stuck in time or completely removed from reality due to their wealth. It would also provide an opportunity for some narrative tension to have a trustee be at odds with Molly, since they would have similar positional power.

Introduce some of the nonprofits the foundation funds: The nonprofits that Molly’s foundation is supporting are mentioned but never seen. It would add to the show to start featuring some of them. There’s lots of comedy potential there. Have the team visit a nonprofit for a site visit and realize the office is haunted because the organization is trying to keep overhead low by staying inside a building where “only a few” murders took place. Have another nonprofit team visit the foundation and end up stealing all the pistachios from the lounge while the foundation staff looks the other way (Snack budgets are often skimpy at most nonprofits, and pistachios are expensive).

Provide education about current nonprofit and philanthropy issues: The show provides some commentary on issues like homelessness, which is great. But this is often at surface level. I hope it fleshes this out along with other societal issues more, and also educate viewers on other things, such as Donor Advised Funds and other vehicles through which the wealthy hoard wealth. Also, an examination of the foundation’s process for giving out funds sounds boring and wonky, with the applications and scoring rubrics etc., but I think it can be funny if done right (“You’re telling me it takes our foundation 10 months to make grant decisions? That’s like conceiving and giving birth to a baby and then going to a resort in Bali for a month.”)

Dive into the problematic nature of wealth. The show depicts Molly’s extravagant wealth without a deeper lens. When Sofia admonishes Molly on her plans to speak at a swanky event for billionaires in Corsica, Molly responds with something like “I don’t need your permission; it’s MY money.” Sofia doesn’t fight back, which is not in alignment with her character; from what we’ve seen from Sofia, she would have said something like “it’s not your money. You and your asshole ex-husband should have paid more taxes.”

In the season finale Molly does redeem herself by going on stage at the conference and saying that billionaires shouldn’t exist. But she doesn’t say why. Next season could dive more into Molly’s realization that much of wealth in society is built on inequitable means like slavery, stolen Indigenous land, tax avoidance, environmental degradation, and worker exploitation.

I think this last piece is key. The show sends mixed messages about wealth. After watching this season, I was both disgusted by the horrendous display of extravagance, and at the same time, I can see why it would be attractive to people. The show makes being ridiculously wealthy very appealing. I too want David Chang to be my personal chef, and I want a helicopter and a massage twice a day!

But it is called “Loot,” which refers to stuff taken during war or through violent means. It would be great for it to lean into this theme a bit more and flesh out the complicated dynamics of wealth in the US.

Overall, I hope Apple continues to develop this show. This is just season one, and most shows take several seasons to find its footing. We don’t have many shows that focus on the challenges as well as the rewards of our complex sector, so I’m glad for Loot. With a few tweaks, it not only could be a funny show, but also one with an important and timely message.