The myth that we only use a small percentage of our brain’s capacity has been debunked over and over again, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a well-trodden trope in pop culture. Scarlett Johansson unlocked 100 percent of her brain in Lucy and used her newfound superpowers to beat up human traffickers. Nicolas Cage taught Jay Baruchel how to use 100 percent of his brain to develop his wizard skills in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And in the 2011 movie Limitless, a designer drug named NZT allowed Bradley Cooper to unlock the full potential of his mind, giving him a superhuman memory and powers of deduction.
Limitless the TV series swaps Bradley Cooper for Jake McDorman, and although the series is less of a reboot and more of a continuation of the movie’s story, the two heroes aren’t all that different. Cooper played Eddie Morra, a slacker/aspiring writer, while McDorman stars as Brian Finch, a slacker/aspiring musician.
When we first meet Brian Finch in the pilot, he’s already high on NZT — dodging traffic and trying to outrun some scary-looking men in suits. Even though Brian is our hero, we still get a glimpse of Cooper’s face within the first 30 seconds of the episode, as Brian dashes past a campaign poster for the re-election of Senator Edward Morra. (Fun fact: Morra’s campaign photo is lifted directly from the original Limitless poster.) Brian manages to lose the suits, but as he ducks into the subway to make his escape, he’s stopped at gunpoint by FBI agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter). Instead of shooting him, she hesitates, and she watches, dumbfounded, as he calmly jumps onto the tracks and stands in front of an incoming train.
That’s when a perfectly timed voiceover from Brian cuts in, helpfully explaining exactly who he is and how he got here. It turns out that he’s not a bad guy, he promises. Growing up, he fronted an up-and-coming band with his friend Eli, but their big break never came, and Eli dropped out. So now, he’s stuck explaining to his family that he’s not in a band — it’s a “project” — and he’s working on an album that doesn’t exist. To make matters worse, his father’s suffering from a mysterious illness, and his only job is a temporary gig at a big bank, where he’s tasked with filing 22,000 personnel forms.
It’s there that he runs into his old friend Eli, and the former-musician-turned-Wall-Street-hotshot takes pity on poor, sad Brian, offering him a small clear pill to “jump-start” his life. When the pill (finally) kicks in, he’s suddenly conversing with himself, and he finds himself recalling every thought he’s ever had. “The scales fell from my eyes,” Brian explains. “Your brain is a miracle, but it’s not efficient. There’s a maze inside everyone’s head, a labyrinth of missed connections and untapped potential. But now suddenly, I had access to every single brain cell.”
When Brian’s on NZT, the viewer sees the world through his eyes, as the dull, gray colors of before turn vibrant, with a distinct orange tint. When he’s trying to work out a problem, words and images float across the screen, Sherlock-style, and he talks with multiple versions of himself. After he knocks out the two-week filing job in two hours, he wanders the city, playing guitar and playing chess. When he runs out of hot dog vendors to recommend Malcolm Gladwell books to, he decides to tackle a much bigger problem: his father’s illness.
By the time he comes down from the NZT — with a hell of a hangover — he’s figured out that his father has hemochromatosis, a hereditary and commonly misdiagnosed disease. Surprise, surprise, Brian’s right (his tiny smile when his suspicions are confirmed is hilarious), but it means his father will need a liver transplant ASAP. Having solved one insurmountable problem, he’s now faced with another one — which means he needs another pill, stat.
His quest leads him to Eli’s apartment, except Eli’s dead, and his money clip filled with pills is missing. By the time Brian thinks back to their stoner days and remembers that Eli always keep a stash taped into the inside of his guitar, the FBI are kicking down his door. Even sober, Brian proves that he’s not totally useless (good call, grabbing Eli’s cell phone), and by the time the FBI agents break in, Brian’s second pill has already kicked in, and he’s long gone.
The pilot was directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man), and it’s an appropriate choice, considering how much the episode feels like a superhero origin story. Watching Brian effortlessly drop from a fire escape feels a lot like Peter Parker testing out his newfound web-slinging abilities. The only difference is that Brian doesn’t actually have any physical superpowers; instead, he just knows exactly how to maximize the strength he already has.
He uses that strength to effortlessly calculate an escape route, and we’re back where we started, facing off against Agent Harris. (Again, there’s a nice switch between the gray/blue colors of the regular scenes and the warm orange of Brian’s NZT perspective.) As the two of them stare each other down, something in his eyes unnerves her, and he makes his escape, calmly waiting for a hurtling subway train to stop inches from his face.
Cut to Agent Harris’ office, where she and her FBI colleagues try to piece together what the hell just happened and how Brian wasn’t smushed by an enormous subway car. Her boss (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) gives some very helpful exposition, explaining that in 2011 (hey, that’s the year the movie came out!), the FBI picked up a dealer carrying a drug he called NZT-48. Recognizing its potential as a cognitive enhancement, the FBI started a test program, recruiting volunteers from within its own ranks, but the program was shut down after the “first two fatalities.” So the question is: Who’s Brian, and how is he connected to NZT?
NEXT: Even more fatalities.
While the FBI is busy trying to catch up, Brian scrolls through Eli’s phone to deduce that there are two other bankers at the same firm who are also regular NZT users: Jay Winston and Adam Honeycutt. (You’d think that someone on NZT would be a little more secretive and not send such obviously expository text messages, but whatever.) Brian makes his way to the Soho hotel where Winston is living, which is where he finds Winston’s body. It’s staged as a suicide, but Brian knows better, so he breaks into Rebecca’s house to formally introduce himself (like a gentleman) and ask for her help.
He quickly catches her up, explaining that there are three bankers using NZT, and two of them are already at the morgue. The only thing he doesn’t tell her is the third person’s name, and because she still doesn’t trust him completely, he heads to Adam Honeycutt’s apartment solo after he comes down from his second pill.
Charming Adam Honeycutt welcomes Brian in, promising to give him a pill, but even sober, Brian picks up on the fact that one house plant in Honeycutt’s otherwise immaculate apartment is slightly off-kilter. When he cracks it open to discover a secret stash of Benjamins, plus Eli’s bloody money clip, Honeycutt shoots him in the leg, chasing him out into the street. There, Honeycutt politely explains that yes, he did kill both Eli and Jay for their NZT, and he’ll probably kill Brian too, if his leg wound doesn’t finish him off first. He knows that Brian doesn’t have enough evidence to properly turn him in, so he walks away, leaving Brian bleeding out on a New York City street. (The people walking by seem remarkably indifferent to the man on the ground with a gaping, bloody hole in his leg.)
So, Brian calls the only person he knows with training in Patching a Bullet Hole 101: Rebecca. After he explains that yes, Honeycutt is the murderer, and no, he can’t prove it yet, she tries to coach him through sewing up the wound, and they bond over egg creams before he passes out and wakes up handcuffed to a hospital bed. That’s when he meets Bradley Cooper — and his ice-blue eyes.
Eddie Morra explains that although he’s been busy being a U.S. senator, he’s been tracking Brian for a while now. He also may/may not be running for president, saying, “Do you know how much time we get off in the senate? It’s shocking, really. I don’t know if I can give it up.” That’s when Eddie nonchalantly explains the secret of his success: He’s taken a pill every morning for the past four years, and he’s never felt better — with the exception of one headache two years ago. Even though repeated NZT use will rot your insides, Eddie has invested millions of dollars into private research, and his team has invented a simple cure. “Every so often, you take one of these shots, and you can have as much NZT as you want with no side effects,” he tells Brian.
It feels like a bit of a cop-out, seeing as the devastating side effects of NZT were the main plot point of the movie, and the existence of Eddie’s magical injection dramatically lowers the stakes of taking the pill. (Although it is pretty funny the way Eddie tries to explain how the injection works before noticing Brian’s glazed expression.) Still, it sets up the series nicely, as Eddie leans forward and says that from here on out, Brian’s life is going to be extraordinary. (Everyone in this scene is dressed in blue, and I’m 99 percent sure they did that just to emphasize Cooper’s eye color. Talk about baby blues.)
AND THEN Eddie asks him if he remembers what it was like to be inside his mother’s womb. Cut to a CGI fetus speaking with Bradley Cooper’s voice in what is hands-down the best and strangest two seconds of the entire episode.
A little weirded out by all the talking baby nonsense, Brian asks Eddie what exactly it is that he wants from him. Eddie mysteriously explains that he’ll soon need someone with Brian’s skills, adding that if he breathes a word of this conversation to anyone, he’ll die a slow and painful death. On that cheery note, Brian accepts the injection and one last pill, and with his mental abilities restored, he sets out to clear his name for good.
To do so, he walks into a bank and commits the most cheerful, considerate bank robbery ever, patiently waiting for Rebecca to arrive so they can crack open Honeycutt’s safety deposit box. There, hidden inside a pocket watch, they find the remaining NZT tablets, stained with Eli’s blood. Ta-da.
Honeycutt goes to jail, all is well, and an FBI medical examination reveals that shockingly, NZT’s side effects aren’t affecting Brian at all. Because he’s “immune,” Rebecca’s boss sees him as a valuable tool in the quest to take down the original creator of NZT, whose identity is “still a mystery, by the way.” Rebecca’s uneasy about using Brian as a lab rat, so she suggests a compromise: They can only study him if they put him to work, and she volunteers to be his handler.
Brian says he’ll do it — but only if the FBI rustles up a new liver for his father. Once his dad’s transplant is successful, Brian officially signs on as an FBI consultant. That’s when Rebecca reveals the reason she didn’t shoot him that day in the subway station: She recognized the look in his eyes as the same look her father had the last time she saw him. She believes her father was on NZT, and although he ended up dead, she’s determined to figure out what happened to him. “I couldn’t help my father,” she tells Brian. “But maybe I can help you.”
And so, we have television’s newest crime-fighting duo: the drugged-up supergenius and his brave FBI handler. Together, they’re ready to take on a new threat every week, and the possibilities are, um, limitless.