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Much like Fox’s new Minority Report series, CBS’s Limitless takes a sci-fi movie idea and turns it into a procedural. In the 2011 movie of the same name, Bradley Cooper’s protagonist is catatonically depressed, and takes a neuro-enhancing drug called NZT-48, which allows him to remember everything he has ever read, heard, or seen. It gives him the ability to live a superhuman life where one’s brain is always firing on all cylinders, solving complex problems deftly, and ultimately, brings him back from the brink.
In the Limitless TV series, which starts off as a bit of a retread, the situation begins in a less dire place. Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) is a presented as a lost musician who can’t catch a break. He feels that his life is passing him by, but he doesn’t take great steps to remedy that. A chance meeting while at a temp job connects him with an old friend who provides him with a dazzling solution: NZT-48. With it, Brian is able to see the world around him with exceptional clarity, and starts to get caught up in the FBI’s investigation of the drug and its mysterious origins.
Like NZT, Limitless makes things incredibly easy for Brian. He has an immediate mastery of it and his surroundings, and becomes Holmesian in his snap judgements backed by keen observation and deductive reasoning. He happens to be at immediate odds with an FBI agent, Rebecca Harris (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter), with whom he instantly bonds and is able to easily manipulate. Her role, unfortunately, is that of a Watson, existing only to pose questions to the maverick man and ask him to explain things. And just when it seems that NZT might be too good to be true, Eddie Morra (Cooper, who will have a small recurring role) arrives to let Brian know it’s ok, he’s found a way to make it all work out.
From there, Limitless sets up a perfectly bog-standard procedural premise. Rebecca convinces her FBI superiors to let her act as Brian’s handler, where the bureau can use his abilities while on NZT (as he is immune to the side effects, thanks to Morra) to solve crimes. There is an overarching plot about the mystery of where NZT comes from, and how it might affect the future of humanity (almost everybody seems to be on it, or knows someone who is), but Limitless seems like it will focus more on Brian’s crime-solving abilities than any of these more far-reaching plots
The show’s pilot, directed by The Amazing Spider-Man‘s Marc Webb, plays with a few stylish flourishes, particularly at the beginning as viewers are introduced to Brian’s life, as well as in the differences on and off of NZT (adjusting color saturation, etc). But mostly, it’s by-the-books — aside from a few serious missteps, like a talking fetus in the womb. To battle a constant voiceover, Brian occasionally talks to himself in a mirrored form in order to work through his next moves (Rebecca will presumably help take over this sounding board position as the series continues), but while it brings something new to the table, none of these effects are ideal.
Despite its formulaic presentation, Limitless does broach a few interesting ideas, and the pilot is pretty decent despite some clunky dialogue. But CBS has long been in the crime procedural business, and it have been very, very successful in recent years precisely because it knows how to play to its audience. Limitless slots perfectly into place, but that’s really damning it with faint praise.
Ultimately, Limitless doesn’t dream big enough, and the stakes feel increasingly low. It has the potential to grow into a more complex series, but given its CBS home and humdrum procedural setup, that seems unlikely. McDorman’s Brian is handsome but bland, which seems to be what happens when one consumes NZT regularly. Its potential as a creator of pod people is brushed aside in favor of seeing it only as a wonder drug. Here, the brilliant are not eccentric misanthropes, but popular, airbrushed versions of our best selves. Limitless’ biggest limitation is seemingly that it forgets that what makes humanity irritatingly wonderful are our flaws. Unfortunately, Limitless’ flaws don’t yet work the same way.
Rating: ★★★ Good for case-of-the-week fans, ★★ Fair for everyone else.
Chance of Survival: Moderate
Limitless premieres Tuesday, September 22 at 10 p.m. on CBS