About a year and a half ago Fox Chairman Kevin Reilly vowed to kill the pilot season on network television. The frenetic rat race of ordering dozens of pilots of what everyone would hope would eventually blossom into great TV shows was counter-productive to the creative process. Why not just look for great TV shows — not 22-46 minute thesis statements of what could become great TV shows?
Kevin Reilly, like most forward-thinkers, was martyred for his forward thinking and fired. After viewing the pilot for Limitless, based on the Bradley Cooper film of the same name, I wish Reilly had lasted another year or two.
Limitless is an above average to decent pilot that feels far too pilot-y. This isn’t a fully formed creative thought — it’s just the thesis statement for one. Undoubtedly feeling the pressure to tell a complete enough story to get picked up for a series, writer Craig Sweeny and director Marc Webb (he of bad Spider-Man movies and good My Chemical Romance music videos) resort to clichés to make their over-stuffed thesis statement work.
Of course the main character, Brian Finch (Jake McDorman), is a 30-something who Just Can’t Get it Together ™. Of course he needs a simple motivation like his father’s illness for becoming a self-less kind of superhero. And of course the arc of Jennifer Carpenter’s character, FBI Agent Rebecca Harris, ranges from “maybe wants the ‘D’” to “kind-of-wants the ‘D’” to “Oh, I think she really wants the ‘D’” before settling on “my pop was sick too so that’s why I feel for you.” The basic tenets of the story are equally uninspiring. Brian takes a special “total recall” style drug called NZT that essentially has his brain operating at the fullest capacity possible. When he attempts to get more of the drug, he comes across his dead banker friend and supplier and that sets him on a collision path to finding his killer. Surprise: another banker.
It’s a shame too because visually Limitless’s pilot looks and sounds stellar. Limitless was undoubtedly in production prior to anyone involved seeing USA’s summer hit, Mr. Robot,* but it still seems to have cosmically borrowed the best of that show: the frenetic techno score, the slick editing and the mentor-mentee relationship between two characters.
*Full disclosure: I’ve not seen any of Mr. Robot, but much like Portia, I read the papers.
It’s that mentor-mentee relationship that is surely what Fox execs found most intriguing as Bradley Cooper revises his role as the main character of the original film: Eddie Mora, now a senator. The appeal of Bradley Cooper (aside from his clearly abundant talent, devastatingly handsome visage and strong sense of humor) is his apparent level of dedication for every role he’s in. It’s amazing to think that one of our current biggest movie stars began his string of breakout films with a “Douche #1” role in a Todd Phillips movie. But Bradley just commits, man. And commit he does here as well. Eddie rescues Brian from certain death and offers him all the NZT drug he needs plus a helpful injection that will take away the brutal hangovers in return for Brian eventually joining up with the FBI.
Lead actor Jake McDorman acquits himself rather well in the role as well despite looking like a mutant hybrid between Dane Cook and Peter Krause. He certainly can’t match the gravitas of a Bradley Cooper but he does match the show’s wild visual pace just fine. Alas, Jennifer Carpenter is the real loser here, as always seems to be the case. Through no fault of her own, Carpenter falls into roles where she looks like a hardass with a gun but is immediately compromised by her silly womanly emotions. She’s onscreen for no more than 30 seconds before her partner is asking her why she couldn’t shoot the pretty man who just led them on a chase through New York. The next time we see her, her partner is exasperated that she’s already calling the handsome suspect by his first name. The next time your freshman year college roommate rails against the lack of good roles for women on television via Facebook, remember this Limitless pilot before you respond, “You’re forgetting Shonda-land!”
At episode’s end everything is wrapped up fairly nicely like a nice, obedient pilot should do. Instead of immediately interrogating Brian for where he’s getting his NZT stash and then torturing and killing him, the U.S. government decides to bring this unemployed slacker on as a junior FBI agent…or something? It’s absurd, of course, but it does nicely set up the rest of the season. I’m just sick of pilots having so much pressure to be the opening act of what could be 0 more episodes or 200. They shouldn’t have bothered with a pilot and made a movie instead.