Neil Burger’s 2011 film Limitless opens with protagonist Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper) standing on the precipice of his own demise before his voice chimes in to introduce the audience to his story. The combination of the film’s flashy visual and musical style — along with Bradley Cooper’s narration — largely succeeds at bringing viewers into Eddie’s experiences as the user of NZT-48, a miraculous “smart drug” that pushes his physical and intellectual abilities — at a cost. Limitless debuted to mixed reviews, but its box office returns were substantial, and now here we are with a sequel series about to hit CBS that picks up the story four years later.
Limitless is the network’s newest attempt at bringing yet another Sherlock Holmes-style procedural to the small-screen. Last year, CBS hit it big with Scorpion after falling short with Intelligence, the Josh Holloway-starring series about a man who fought crime with the help of his supercomputer brain. (Chuck, it should be noted, pulled this off for five quirky seasons.)
The pilot follows Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), an unmotivated musician who can’t seem to hold down a job, let alone get his dream career off the ground. His disappointing state of affairs worsens when his father (Ron Rifkin) falls victim to a mysterious disease the doctors cannot diagnose. Brian’s luck quickly changes as he runs into an old friend who gives him the opportunity to “jump start” his life with a tiny little pill known as “NZT-48,” or “NZT” for short.
As with the movie, our hero’s life quickly transforms, but the pilot episode mixes the high concept with surprisingly low stakes. The serious health ramifications of the drug are exposed early on in the episode — reminding us of just how dire Eddie Morra’s situation became — but the quick pacing of the plot makes it feel secondary in importance. To add to the apparent danger, though, a murder is quickly thrown into the mix, finding Finch as the FBI’s number-one suspect. In spite of this compelling set-up, the series finds itself falling into a few self-made traps.
The pilot opens to Finch running panicked through a busy New York street, and, after a beat, his voice plays over the on-screen action to introduce us to the story. While this rings back to the narrative of the original movie, the execution plays as mostly convenient. Voiceover can be a tricky thing when used as a storytelling device, and both Mr. Robot and Narcos are recent examples of how that tool can work to a program’s advantage. While the voiceover used in Limitless does help keep the pacing ever-so-kinetic, it’s not used with the same deftness as on those shows.
For the most part, the writing holds the story together, but there are a few too many moments of convenience. One key scene finds a character suffering from a gunshot wound. During their call for help, the person on the receiving end of that call seems to already know the location of the wound. Early on, Brian suddenly refers to his little happy pill as NZT without having, as of yet, any access to the identifying information for the mystery drug. This would be nitpicking if these details didn’t prove so distracting.
As with any procedural, much rests on the show’s two main characters. McDorman, who was previously seen in the short-lived Manhattan Love Story, does a decent job at selling the duality of his character. He conveys a sense of charisma that makes sense for a struggling musician and the cockiness of a man gifted with brilliance. The addition of FBI agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter) helps add that extra human ingredient the series needs. She serves as the catalyst that brings Finch to the FBI, but there’s an empathetic connection that seems like it could deepen over time. As with her performance on Dexter, Carpenter brings a familiar sense of determined honesty to the role.
Limitless resembles its source material with good reason: A few key players from the film are involved with the series. Burger serves as director here and is an executive producer on the project. Composer Paul Leonard-Morgan returns, bringing an energetic intensity to the show’s score. And, as advertised, Bradley Cooper is back to reprise his role as Edward, now serving as senator. (Cooper appears in the pilot for a brief scene and, according to IMDb, he will be back for at least a few more episodes.)
In a fall season filled with a variety of procedurals and monster-of-the-week scenarios, CBS’s Limitless stands out for its unique style and recognizable name. There is enough to digest in the first episode and — given the current fall TV playing field — it doesn’t entirely feel like the series is just running through the motions of a tired old formula. That’s not to say, they’re cutting this thing from a brand new cloth as what works on CBS works on CBS.
With the introduction of an ongoing narrative that will continue through future episodes alongside each week’s case, Limitless feels like the perfect addition to the network’s slate. Sure, this first episode is way more tell than show, but the finished product is edgy enough to appeal to a younger audience while still sitting comfortably beside NCIS: New Orleans.