TV adaptations of big-screen entertainment can often feel small in spectacle, ambition and imagination. They needn’t be. Last year, Fargo knocked our socks off with a sweeping, clever crime yarn and an inventive aesthetic inspired by the work of the show’s spiritual godfathers, the Coen brothers. The artfulness of Fargo shames Fox’s Minority Report, a cop show proceduralification of the Steven Spielberg/Tom Cruise sci-fi smash that’s rich in special effects and poor in every other phase of its game; and it’s miles beyond what’s demonstrated by the pilot for CBS’ Limitless, a cop show proceduralification of the 2011 Bradley Cooper sci-fi lite thriller about a guy who becomes near omniscient and supremely competent at, like, everything, by taking a mysterious drug.
Limitless is a sequel to the film, inasmuch as it takes place within the world created by the movie and even features Cooper as his character in a recurring cameo. Points for franchise-mandated respect for the source material! Of course, it also asks us to care about an underachieving white male from a family of privilege – he’s also a struggling musician, in case that helps you like him more — who finally finds purpose and fulfillment by becoming a chemically jacked comic book übermensch. In Marvel Comics parlance, he’s the hippie minstrel Rick Jones who becomes a cosmically aware Captain Marvel.
In the parlance of Limitless, he’s Brian Finch, a generically scruffy hunk played by Jake McDorman (Greek) who resents the judgmental worry of his parents about his delayed/deficient/never-gonna-get-it awesomeness. Then he scores some magic beans, a compound known as NZT-48. The drug makes him a Brainiac, complete with Tesla-esque recall and Data-esque analytical skills. Like most superheroes who must learn that with great power comes great responsibility, Brian initially spends his windfall of I.Q. points on irresponsible pursuits — and some decent ones too (he’s got a good heart, don’t you know) — but then conscience takes over completely and righteous but modest callings tug at him. His strangely sick dad needs a differential diagnosis (Dr. House: Unavailable), a white collar psycho also abusing NZT needs collaring. Eventually, he meets Cooper’s character, a wise Jedi strong with the NZT force who may or may not be a reliable Obi-Wan for our suddenly skywalking hero. Finally, Brian gets recruited by the FBI to solve crimes. Weekly franchise established! Achievement unlocked! Next level, please.
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I’ve read many reviews taking Limitless to task for its – wait for it – limited imagination for its own premise. At the risk of being equally limited with my expression of critical imagination, let me trump all other reviews by telling that the real problem with Limitless is that it’s … limited … in … uh … oh, you know. DAMMIT! Can’t do it. Seriously: Why doesn’t Brian use his super-genius on grander projects? Why can’t Limitless be more interested in exploring the moral, political, and spiritual ramifications of functional omniscience? Guess we can’t expect every show to be Mr. Robot, can we? Maybe it takes a super-genius to make a truly credible version of the premise. Limitless tries, though. The pilot for Limitless was directed by Marc Webb, who helmed (500) Days of Summer and the Spider-Man movies starring Andrew Garfield. He jazzes up the otherwise pedestrian storytelling with FX-enhanced set pieces. There’s a chase scene in which Brian uses his big brain to project outcomes for three different escape routes. They’re fun bits, but they also feel videogame-y and rehashed from elsewhere. McDorman is fine. As Brian’s FBI handler, Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter is (wasted) fine. Everyone is just … fine. Except for Bradley Cooper. He’s mesmerizing in his one scene. Webb’s close-ups and Cooper’s cool, charismatic, less-is-more minimalism are the most impressively cinematic moments in the pilot.
You’ve seen it all before on Limitless, and that’s probably my biggest objection to it. Maybe we’re trying to work something out, or get at something, or… something. Films like Transcendence and Lucy are full of huge ideas and steeped in ridiculous cynicism. TV shows like Minority Report, Chuck, or CBS’ previous attempt the Limitless concept, Intelligence, go the opposite direction: They offer the assurance of a knowable universe and that all chaos can be quelled. If only life could like a procedural. If only we were super. Somewhere in the middle, there’s a story to be told about what it means to be human in a tech-wild, catastrophe-rocked, profoundly uncertain age. Maybe someday, TV will give us that story. Until then, we get generic label pop like Limitless. Enjoy.