Limitless: From Bland to Experimental


CBS’ Limitless is a sequel to the film which starred Bradley Cooper in 2011. The series begins several years after the film. Eddie Morra has become a senator (Bradley Cooper) and NZT is once again available in NYC.

Enter Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) a shiftless man-child whose life is forever changed after he takes NZT and becomes intellectually enhanced. The pilot follows a typical and cliché journey. First he uses his new abilities selfishly, then he uses it to save a love one (father) and finally he finds purpose and uses it to help others. Of course the turning point is his implication in a murder when he finds his drug dealer dead and becomes the number one suspect. His ally and eventual handler is FBI Special Agent Rebecca HarrisDexter’s Jennifer Carpenter.

The pilot is bland-from storytelling to action sequences. It is a simple procedural with a lead who has a special skill. Canceled shows like Fox’s Almost Human, NBC’s Believe and CBS’ Intelligence did much more with the intelligence-enhanced premise. So how did Limitless move from bland to experimental storytelling by the end of its twenty-two episode season?

It took a drug for CBS to deliver a unique character with some complexity. Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) has the appeal of Olivia Benson (Mariska Hargitay) from Law and Order: Special Victim Unit and the mental dexterity of Detective Goren (Vincent D’Onofrio) from Law and Order: Criminal Intent, but he has the familial bonds and morality of Commissioner Reagan from Blue Bloods. McDorman’s performance is charming and shows a deftness for comedy. He even realistically nails the distinction between Brian on and off NZT.

At the end of its first season, it is clear that this show is atypical for the network and to some extent the television landscape. It is  CBS’ response to being labeled ‘television’s saccharine for middle america, sweet but with no edge or inventiveness. Beginning as a procedural, Limitless quickly veers off course into comedy, animation/fantasy, drama, romance and thriller. The show’s experimental approach lands the show some successes and failures.


It superbly uses a variety of strategies to illustrate Brian’s superpowers, how the drug elevates Brian’s intelligence: animation, fantasy, voice-overs, thought bubbles, etc… The show’s willingness to visually illustrate the effects of AZT and Brian’s vision-boarding skills with and without CGI is noteworthy: dioramas, etc a sketches, dream sequences and even time lapses. However, their use is often heavy-handed, lacking nuance. In the season finale,  the storytelling is hobbled by the overuse of the time lapses. They do indicate the dire nature of Brian’s health on AZT without the immunity shot, but it gives the storytelling an unnecessary jerkiness. Coupled with the nature of the episode’s lack of a compelling climax or cliffhanger the time lapse approach was largely ineffective.

Visually the show is largely light, fun and appealing for comic book and  science-fiction lovers, but it is also appropriately dark and sentimental. For many, Limitless is uneven for the risks it takes: talking dinosaur, four episode romance, near stand alone episode in Russia, exploring Brian’s family dynamics, bodyguard bromance, Rebecca’s off-book investigation,  Brian’s day off adventure‘deputizing’ Stavros the janitor… The show excels when it discards the procedural format, refusing to use it as a crutch. With few exceptions, the FBI cases are the show’s Kryptonite. When the storytelling focuses on The League of Whom the show soars. Episodes with Sands, Morra, and Piper are memorable: “Page 44,”  “Sands, Agent of Morra,” “Bezgranichnyy,” and even “My Name is Rebecca”.

For Executive Producer and show runner Craig Sweeny, “[this season tells the complete] story of Sands and what it means for Brian the character to have faced not just one but multiple adversaries who are on NZT.” The show has on occasion neglected or refused to address central questions. Characters, storylines and themes sometimes simply go MIA or offer contradictory information.  With a rather rushed and dizzying finale, the audience may actually feel cheated. It is not clear if this is an affront or a sign of respect for the audience’s intelligence. Regardless, it is easy to disagree with Sweeny.  Sand maybe handled as is much of The League of Whom and there maybe no cliffhanger but the season doesn’t read as complete.

  1. At the end of the movie, Morra’s abilities are made permanent and he takes control of the drug. Why doesn’t season 1 better explore how or why the drug resurfaces? Maybe I missed this.
  2. Shouldn’t Piper be able to make the effects of NTZ permanent not just an immunity to the side effects?
  3. How is Brian not able to infer that his girlfriend Piper is likely involved with Morra, Sands or  worst she is plotting to topple them?
  4. How does Apocryphon  (Clay Meeks) gain knowledge of both Morra and Sands?
  5. How do they not have any evidence on Morra after felling Sands?
  6. How does Brian explain his renewed immunity to NZT without implicating Piper to Rebecca and the FBI.

The leaps in storytelling and sometimes logic is the show’s biggest flaw. The show is also hampered by the lengthy season, 22 episodes. Viewership has declined by close to fifty percent: 9.857 to 5.706. Though the show benefits from its powerful network, time slot and star power of Cooper, the show is failing. It is better suited for marathon viewing. The show could really thrive on cable with a shorter season and fewer restrictions even with the newly formed NZT FBI Squad.

Limitless is grounded in reality, at least tv reality. Though it experiments with genres and storytelling, it is not not imbuing the story with science that is so technologically advance that it would seem incredulous. The show elevates its science fiction crime drama labeling without delving into areas better served by SYFY or CW. This story is intentionally not otherworldly and its approach keeps the show light and funny even in the face of dramatic themes. Limitless visually gives us the NZT experience. It has all of the inventiveness of a Jazz musician. Maybe not Davis, Coltrane or Holliday, but Jazz nonetheless. Limitless proves that viewers want unique stories not cookie cutter procedurals. The NZT story is far more interesting than sending Brian on yet another crime case. Countless shows have been centered on local, syndicate and international crimes. If Limitless‘ Season Two reigns in the lazy plotting i.e. Empire  and focuses on the NZT storyline the show may begin to trend up. This show can easily become an insipid procedural like Scorpion or CBS’comedic answer to Blacklist and Blindspot.  Where would you put your money?

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