Sky One’s new US crime procedural Limitless is a spin-off from the 2011 movie of the same name, in which Bradley Cooper’s character Eddie Morra happened across a drug called NZT-48 which allowed him to access the full potential of the human brain for a 12-hour period, giving him almost superhuman capabilities in the meantime. A similar premise was behind the 2014 film Lucy which I reviewed last year – although with Luc Besson at the helm, Lucy inevitably ended up going massively bonkers with its high concept. By comparison Limitless had proved almost a model of reserve.
The film’s relative caution has only increased with its transition to a network series. The format has been tweaked so this time it’s 28-year-old waster Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) who gets to test drive the drug. With a little mysterious assistance from Morra (Cooper in a one-scene cameo reprising his role from the movie), Finch is able to control his newly acquired drug-given abilities and wrangle a position as a consultant to the FBI solving complex crimes alongside special agents Rebecca Harris (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) and Spelman Boyle (CSI: New York’s Hill Harper) who both report to tough-as-nails boss Nasreen Poura (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio).
Developed by Craig Sweeny (with Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci as executive producers alongside Cooper), Limitless has a determinedly pre-fab feel to it. The film’s plot has been reshaped to fit exactly the same crime show format hole that we’ve seen used dozens of times in the last decade, in which an unconventional but brilliant expert gets to solve crimes alongside comparatively dull-witted detectives or FBI agents. Think Bones (Temperance Brennan), Castle (Richard Castle), The Mentalist (Patrick Jane), Sleepy Hollow (Ichabod Crane), Elementary (Sherlock Holmes) or even The Blacklist (Raymond Reddington).
The surprise here is that such an over-used and over-worked format doesn’t actually feel even more tired than it probably should; in fact, Limitless shows that while well-worn and too-familiar, the premise does still have some life left to it and manages to perform surprisingly well for its age. In such cases much depends on the central performance: if your main character clicks with audiences then you can get away with all sort of things, and in that respect I genuinely did find Jake McDorman a likeable presence that I enjoyed hanging around with. That’s no small achievement by McDorman who has to alternate being something of a lost boy loser when not on NZT with being the smartest, smuggest man on the planet the moment that he pops a pill. The fact that he can pull this off (with copious use of voiceover) while still being likeable and sympathetic in both personas is probably the most surprising and successful aspect of the show.
Carpenter’s role is perhaps a little too close to the one she played in Dexter for comfort, but she does get to play some interesting new notes on a familiar theme. Harper gets little of significance to do in the first two episodes, while Mastrantonio is in cruise control as the boss – my abiding memory of her character from the first two episodes was what a fabulous jacket she was wearing for the scene in which she is about to fire Finch for not following the rules.
The pilot and second episode of the series were both directed by The Amazing Spider-Man director Marc Webb and he brings a visually distinctive and interesting style which makes the show feel a little more polished and distinctive than might otherwise have been the case. That said, his ways of showing off Finch’s NZT-boosted abilities by using time lapse photography, rollbacks, on-screen graphics and even literally talking things out with himself will be pretty familiar to anyone who has seen the BBC’s modern take on Sherlock.
“Pilot” has a lot of establishing business to take care of, and makes surprisingly light work of it showing little of the crammed exposition-heavy freneticism common to US TV series pilots which I’ve complained about before. Working in a low-paid temp job doing filing at an investment bank, he’s offered a tablet of NZT-48 by his successful former friend Eli. When Eli is murdered for his remaining stash of NZT, Finch has to solve the crime before he’s arrested for it by FBI Special Agent Harris – who, it turns out, has prior experience in her family with the drug. The trouble with NZT is that everyone who takes the drug quickly ends up chronically ill; except that in Finch’s case, a chance encounter with Morra (Cooper) has granted him some sort of immunity from the wasting side effects. In “Badge! Gun!” Finch uses his abilities to solve a murder involving genetically-targeted viruses, and in the process persuades the FBI to let him partner Harris in the field rather than being locked in a room at FBI headquarters as a glorified data analyst.
At the moment the show looks very much in the unambitious format of case-of-the-week, but there are a few elements suggesting a series arc might be forthcoming down the line should the show achieve longevity past its currently confirmed 22-episode first season. Principal among them is exactly what Cooper’s character Morra is up to and why he’s decided to offer Finch the ability to use NZT without side effects: now a US senator, Morra is planning a presidential bid and seems to think Finch’s role at the FBI will be useful to him in the future. However, every time Finch tries to Google Morra’s name alongside the word ‘NZT’ his computer crashes – suggesting that someone is keeping a close eye on him.
Added to this we have veteran stars Ron Rifkind and Blair Brown as Finch’s parents Dennis and Marie. Dennis is terminally ill in the “Pilot” until his supercharged son correctly diagnoses the problem; when Dennis is in recovery in the second episode Finch recognises his father’s live-in nurse as being the same one who was with Morra in their earlier encounter. The implications are clear: not only is Finch being watched, but disobeying an injunction to keep quiet about NZT might result in an unfortunate fatal relapse for Dennis.
The show does have a potential problem lodged in its core concept in that Finch’s abilities are in essence a representation of the feeling of a fictional, idealised crack-cocaine ‘high’ and that as a consequence Finch is close to being an unrepentant drug addict – not the sort of hero figure a network TV show normally goes for. Although NZT isn’t presented as being notably addictive in itself, clearly the abilities it bestows become more and more appealing to Finch who needs the drug to allow him to work and to be ‘special’ enough to be useful to the FBI. Without it, he’s back to being the same 20-something dead-end temp worker and failed musician all over again. So is the message of Limitless that it’s good to use performance-enhancing drugs if it makes you do your job better, regardless of side effects? That would be … unfortunate.
Not that the show is blind to this side to its premise. In the second episode, Finch attends a family gathering while still high on NZT leading to him being massively brilliant on all fronts. This doesn’t go unnoticed by his father: when Finch is ‘coming down’ the following morning, Dennis takes him aside and asks if he has a drug problem. Brian says no, but the fact that the question is raised this early in the run indicates it’s likely to be a big factor sooner rather than later.
Otherwise it’s all perfectly pleasant and a smooth watch – but none of it is doing anything new or remarkable or even particularly different from dozens of other cop shows, old and new. Oddly I was strongly reminded of a short-lived series from the 1970s called The Invisible Man iwith NCIS star David McCallum and its follow up The Gemini Man starring Ben Murphy who could similarly turn himself invisible but only for 15 minutes per day, a similar time-limited superpower to Finch’s 12-hour brain boost. Maybe it’s the fact that Limitless does feel so cosily familiar and doesn’t try and force its pace is what makes it such amiable company.
Whether its charms will quickly fade, or whether it will float happily along for a seven season run remains to be seen. Based on the first two episodes I was pleasantly surprised and regard it as one of the more easy-going new US TV shows to have been launched in recent years, although that might not upscale into a lasting appeal. I’m perfectly prepared to hang around for the time being and find out, through.
Rating: ★ ★ ★
Limitless continues on Wednesday evenings at 9pm on Sky One. The motion picture on which is it based is available on DVD and Blu-ray.