Of all the films being adapted into television series lately, Limitless perhaps had more potential than most. The 2011 film, which starred Bradley Cooper as a struggling, unextraordinary writer who turns his life around after he becomes hooked on a brain-boosting drug called NZT, opened up a wealth of possibilities for expansion to a weekly format. Such a series could have taken the shape of something like Breaking Bad, where a protagonist’s cunning and greed grow along with his mental acuity, leading his fortunes to increase while his humanity plummets. Or, for a less antiheroic approach, how about a hero so brimming with next-level intelligence that he becomes an agent of social change, creating powerful enemies in the process? One might not go so far as to say the possibilities for a Limitless series were, well, limitless, but the premise is mutable enough for a good handful of worthwhile approaches to present themselves.
Which is why it’s a pity that Limitless ultimately goes for the most obvious, least desirable option. The series centers around Brian Finch (Jake McDorman, suggesting a mild version of Chris Pratt) , a ne’er-do-well musician who has yet to join the adult world. Still pursuing dreams of being in a band long after all of his bandmates have moved onto more responsible gigs, Brian finds himself adrift in life. His family has little respect for him, save for his supportive father (Ron Rifkin), who is experiencing declining health due to an unknown malady. Brian winds up taking a job as a file clerk at a financial office, doing the sort of work for which he’s nearly a decade too old. It is here that Brian meet an old friend and bandmate, Eli, who is now a successful investment banker. Taking note of Brian’s sorry state, Eli gives Brian a pill that he claims will turn his fortunes around. Brian takes the pill and finds a fire in his belly that he’d never had before. He’s able to knock out two weeks’ worth of filing in two hours, sort out the life of a harried co-worker, master chess and even successfully diagnose his father’s ailment. But after a 12-hour whirlwind of productivity, Brian crashes hard. When he visits Eli’s apartment to secure more NZT, he finds his old friend shot dead and must flee out the window to avoid being nabbed by the FBI as a suspect.
Evading capture due to a moment of hesitation by an agent named Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter), Brian makes a daring escape under an encroaching subway train by successfully sussing out its stop-time. He then goes on the lam and figures out that an assassin is picking off NZT users to purloin their supplies. Brian sneaks into Agent Harris’ apartment to clue her into his innocence and makes a reluctant ally of her. He eventually manages to pinpoint the killer’s identity, but not before taking a bullet to the thigh. He is patched up by Senator Edward Mora (Bradley Cooper, who also acts as producer), who gives Brian a shot of a formula that counteracts all of NZT’s side effects and offers him an unending supply of NZT in exchange for services left vague.
Cooper’s appearance skews Limitless in an interesting direction. Up until that point, the episode seemed content to simply remake the film, almost note for note. Again we have a slacker who is gifted an NZT sample by an old friend. Again that friend is found murdered in his apartment. Again the slacker finds himself wanted by the law. The series even uses the same visual tricks as the film, such as the protagonist being shot in muted greys when off NZT and vibrant orange hues when on it, as well as his point-of-view being that of propulsive tunnel vision when on an NZT high. However, when Mora pops up to render this series a sequel rather than a rehash, it’s exciting, and not just because Cooper is far too big a star to be hanging around a primetime show. Mora’s impossible success (he’s only not running for president because the Senate allows for more vacation time) makes him an intriguing counterpoint to Brian, a glimpse of what Brian could become in seasons to come, as well as a powerful behind-the-scenes instigator. By linking the series directly to the film, it gives Limitless a vitality that it otherwise might have lacked (it also provides us the memorably trippy and hilarious image of a fetus speaking with Bradley Cooper’s voice).
But Limitless ultimately lacks the ambition that Mora himself prides himself on. Once the case is resolved, Harris implores her superiors to keep Brian around as a consultant, with his NZT-powered cognitive skills thought of as a valuable weapon in federal crime-solving. This decision places Limitless squarely in the realm of network procedural ho-humness, bending it into a recognizable CBS-friendly form rather than letting it go its own way. The FBI joining forces with an enhanced or plugged-in advisor in the service of case-of-the-week law enforcement is essentially what every network show seems to be about these days. In particular, Brian’s brainy role in the FBI essentially makes Limitless little more than a reprisal of The Mentalist. The show still has some appealing grand-scheme mysteries to solve, like who exactly is manufacturing NZT, what plans Mora has in mind for Brian and, most pressingly, how many appearances can Cooper realistically be expected to make, but by fashioning the overall framework of Limitless as just another primetime potboiler, a tremendous disservice seems to be performed. This isn’t thinking outside the box, this is imprisoning creativity inside of one.
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