This review contains spoilers.
The thematic centre of Neil Burger’s 2011 feature Limitless, based on Alan Glynn’s novel The Dark Fields, was what we’d all be willing to sacrifice for knowledge and power. If you were offered a psychotropic devil’s bargain that would make you an uber-capable genius at the cost of your safety, would you take it?
The CBS spin-off show poses no such question. Not in the pilot at least. It doesn’t use its neural-enhancement-drug premise to probe the ethics of an issue that’s recurred in myth for centuries, from Prometheus to the Garden of Eden to Doctor Faustus to a shelf of comic books a mile long. Instead, it uses it to populate network TV with yet another super-powered crime-solver.
Because by the end of the Limitless pilot, that’s what we’re left with. Former slacker Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) has accepted the role of the FBI’s mistress; he’s going to be set up in an apartment, kept in pills, and visited when the need arises. The need for a consulting detective whose brain works faster and better than the average gumshoe, that is.
Wait, I hear you say, doesn’t CBS already have one of those? English chap? Sherlock something?
That it does (with Limitless showrunner Craig Sweeny as one of its writers to boot), but no matter. Network TV evidently has no upper limit on the permitted number of unusually able crime-solvers. There are crime-solvers who can see the future, read minds, come back from the dead, talk to ghosts; crime-solvers who can deduce, predict, postdict and, who knows, probably smell crime. What’s the problem with one more who needs to pop a little pill before he can access his murder-solving abilities?
Judging by the pilot, the problem is that generic repetition is dull. Limitless may have dressed up its premiere with more visual pizzazz than a circus on Chinese New Year, but all that gloss couldn’t disguise the fact that it feels so very predictable.
That’s not the fault of its lead. Luckily, because thanks to the voiceover we hear an awful lot of him, McDorman is likeable enough as Finch, a 28 year old struggling to find a place in the world until he’s offered a transformative dose of super-drug NZT. His failure to launch is established wittily around that family dinner scene, and when he begins to experience the effects of the drug, his enthusiasm is as infectious as the show’s visual trickery is distracting.
There are good stylistic ideas here, including a few familiar friends from the David Fincher school of filmmaking, but so many at once felt dizzying rather than exhilarating to watch. The trick of opening and then flashbacking to the second act chase achieved its goal of hitting the ground running, but caused an unfortunate stumble when the timeline eventually span back to the same point.
What strips Finch’s story of any real bite are the pains taken to establish him as an out-and-out good guy. Instead of using NZT for self-promotion, like Bradley Cooper’s morally murkier and consequently more interesting character in the film, Finch uses it first to solve his friend’s murder, next to clear his innocent name, and finally to save his dad’s life. That’s too much uncomplicated heroism for one episode by anyone’s standards.
If being a failed musician instead of an investment banker is this character’s only ‘flaw’, he’s going to get boring and soon. By the time Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter had piled her addict-dad NZT mystery on to the pile (during a scene that kept to network TV’s rule that all meaningful conversations should take place on rooftops overlooking the Manhattan Bridge), Limitless’ moralising felt almost suffocating.
The few moments of Bradley Cooper we were given weren’t quite enough to pep up an episode that felt, thanks to the voiceover and the visual tricks, like a neutered Mr Robot. Breakneck action, a winning lead and camera wizardry may be watchable, which is perhaps all CBS is aiming for here, but ultimately, they don’t make up for a lack of something to say.