[This is a review of Limitless season 1, episode 1. There will be SPOILERS.]
The pilot episode for Limitless, the sort-of sequel to the film of the same name starring Bradley Cooper, feels like two shows crammed into one. The first show is a series that asks the question: What would you do if someone handed you unlimited potential in pill form? As the film demonstrated, you would first fulfill your baser needs of money, sex, and attention (i.e., fame) and then you would seek higher ground, basically in the name of power – which Cooper’s character did by seeking public office. In the series, Brian Finch, a wannabe musician played by Jake McDorman reduces these ambitions to doing a really good job his first day as a temporary filing clerk, then by playing someone else’s guitar in a public square, and then solving the mystery of his father’s illness.
It isn’t that these are the wrong things for Jake to choose to accomplish with this newfound “unlimited” potential; it’s that they are all indicative of the second show Limitless presents itself to be. That show wedges a potentially boundless sci-fi premise into a fairly standard crime-of-the-week cop show; it takes an average guy and with a single pill turns him into Sherlock Holmes – specifically CBS’ version of Holmes, albeit with a drug dependency that’s, like, totally cool to have.
The drug in question is NZT-48, and it isn’t just a magical little pill that bestows upon those who take it complete memory recall; it is also a little magic pill that gives the show’s writers an all too easy way out of literally any jam they can dream up. Stuck on a fire escape? Well, NZT can tell you your grip strength, so you can drop from ledge to ledge and make your escape (good thing you’re already strong enough to do that). Cornered in the subway by a pesky FBI agent? Well, NZT can help you predict the stopping distance of an oncoming subway train and remember the unused tunnel that is conveniently underneath the now-stopped train. Need to get on the other side of a locked door? Well, NZT can help you remember the YouTube video you watched when a night of kinky sex took a wrong turn and a pair of handcuffs had to be picked.
All those events work for the needs of the story, but for a show called Limitless, those needs are definitely inhibited. They’re not even constrained by such things as conflict, as the show has no real sense of that in terms of its central conceit. There are hints of it early on, as Brian begins having an adverse reaction to taking NZT, and through some handy exposition by Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio, the audience learns that prolonged use of the drug results in death. But the show can’t have its miracle crime solver being saddled with something as potentially troublesome as side effects or the DTs, so cue Bradley Cooper’s cameo.
The significance of Cooper’s appearance and potential future appearances have been somewhat oversold by both the network and overeager entertainment writers. Early on in the pilot, the camera lingers on a campaign poster to re-elect Eddie Morra and it gives you the feeling that such throwaways may well be the extent of Cooper’s impact on the show – sweeps notwithstanding. Here, though, Morra arrives to enact a kind of passing of the Limitless torch, complete with magic elixir that erases the threat of NZT’s deadly side effects, while also assuring Brian (and by extension, the audience) he will never have to wonder if his next pill will be his last. Not only is there no problem a little pill can’t fix, there’s also no problem that can’t be explained away with a celebrity cameo.
Even the agent hunting him, Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter of Dexter fame), is willing to overlook Brian’s supposed criminality with surprising ease, and becomes the one to propose his candidacy for FBI consultancy, so don’t expect any conflict there, either. The pilot does offer up hints of a larger conspiracy surrounding NZT, its mysterious creator, and Rebecca’s late father, so that will give fans something to cling to in between the week-to-week crime solving.
And that’s really what this pilot is about: taking a broad concept and compressing it into CBS’ admittedly successful network formula. Limitless, once a sci-fi film about wish fulfillment wrapped in a designer drug, has now been turned into another easy, breezy crime-of-the-week procedural.
That may have narrowed the series’ storytelling potential (or ambition, really), but it probably won’t have much of an impact on the show’s success. The series comes from Elementary writer and producer Craig Sweeny, and is also produced by Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (which explains the plot-fixing magic elixir Cooper has in his possession). Meanwhile, Marc Webb directed its slick pilot. While Webb likely won’t be sticking around, the show is definitely in the hands of those with a solid enough track record to believe it will settle into a nice rhythm at CBS.
The cast is good, too. With Mastrantonio in the Aidan Quinn role, and Hill Harper working the Jon Michael Hill angle, Limitless has a solid, if not predictable supporting cast. Carpenter brings her usual competency to a fairly straightforward character, while McDorman – who is like a mix between Peter Krause and Dane Cook – is certainly likeable enough to watch.
Moving forward, the attractiveness and affability of the cast will hopefully offset the deficiencies of the pilot, which sacrifices a potentially enormous concept in order to set up another prosaic procedural.
Limitless continues next Tuesday with ‘Badge! Gun!’ @10pm on CBS. Check out a preview below:
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