CBS’s new series “Limitless” is the latest story to build on the misconception that humans only use 10 percent of their brains, and if we were able to access 100 percent, we’d become superhuman. Like the eponymous film, and like other movies that use this same myth, the show rarely exploits the moral quandaries that naturally arise from the premise. At least the film version of “Limitless” and last year’s “Lucy” had a lot of stylish fun with the wacky ideas, and the “Limitless” pilot occasionally attains that sense of absurd entertainment. Unfortunately, the show seems to promise little to sustain an ongoing series past its premiere.
Jake McDorman (“Manhattan Love Story”) stars as Brian Finch, the basic equivalent to Bradley Cooper’s character in the film. When his father (Ron Rifkin, “Brothers and Sisters”) becomes sick, Brian realizes he hasn’t done anything in his life to make his dad proud. Luckily, Brian’s friend Eli has access to NZT, a drug that allows its user to access the entirety of the brain. Now Brian can solve complex math equations, vividly remember every moment of his life and digest huge quantities of information with the quickest of glances.
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From the beginning, there are signs that the show won’t be able to match the heights of the movie. McDorman works fine as a protagonist, but he’s not nearly as charismatic as Cooper, so when he uses his powers to suavely show off and flirt with women, he’s not as amusingly smug. He’s also saddled with the most pointless, annoying voiceover since the later seasons of “Dexter,” explaining every move he makes instead of just allowing the viewer to watch it happen.
The rest of the main cast is mostly uninteresting. Jennifer Carpenter as FBI agent Rebecca Harris is disappointingly tame after Carpenter’s erratic performance on “Dexter,” and a third-act reveal that her late father used NZT fails to make her a three-dimensional character. The other two agents who round out the cast, played by Hill Harper (“CSI: NY”) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (“The Color of Money”) are stock types, two bland agents who serve only to question Harris when she blindly trusts Brian.
At least most of the pilot burns through plot at an impressive rate. Brian becomes addicted to NZT, solves the murder of a friend, faces off against Harris on multiple occasions, schemes to move his sick father to the top of the liver transplant waiting list and meets Eddie Morra, Bradley Cooper’s character from the film. The episode’s kinetic pace keeps it entertaining until the last act, when Brian and Harris enter into a partnership that promises a boring procedural structure for upcoming episodes. As soon as Harris calls Brian’s abilities a ‘resource’ and utters the world ‘consultant,’ it’s clear the show isn’t interested in maintaining the fun of its first episode. This was all meant to set up a standard boring formulaic cop show, with the ‘twist’ being that the consultant has pharmaceutically-induced superhuman abilities.
TV shows based on movies and books often struggle to find a way to tell a similar story stretched out to the format of an ongoing series. “Limitless” tries to solve that problem by turning the story into a procedural, a reliable way to have a new plot each episode to distract from the sluggish main narrative arc. Ironically, though, “Limitless” would improve by sticking more to the plot of the movie, having Brian do something new and interesting with his powers instead of just helping out another law enforcement agency. The ending of “Limitless” was so compelling because Morra acted entirely in self-interest, using NZT to indulge his delusions of self-grandeur and ascend to a position of power in the Senate. “Limitless” would do well to have its protagonist be a little more selfish and a little less noble.