Critic's Notebook: Is 'Limitless' Network TV's Most Creative Procedural?

CBS' freshman drama often lived up to its entertaining potential, but it's still in renewal limbo after its first season finale aired Tuesday night.
Courtesy of David M. Russell/CBS
[Warning: This article contains spoilers for the first season finale of Limitless.]
 
Limitless wrapped up its first season on Tuesday (April 26) night, unrenewed by CBS but nevertheless a fairly well-actualized version of itself.
 
Although still marred by some of the problems it has faced from its pilot, mostly a needless adherence to source material that was more reliably a distraction than an asset, Limitless made a small mark by consistently being slightly better than it needed to be for 22 episodes — slightly cheekier, slightly more stylish, slightly smarter and slightly more inspired. It's unlikely that Limitless will ever earn extensive critical adulation, but in the not-especially-fertile field of network procedurals, it has moved near the head of the pack.
 
I don't watch many network procedurals regularly, but the ones I do watch tend to be shows with a single compelling lead (House), a pair of charming leads (Castle, though that's about to change), two charming leads and a winning ensemble (Bones), two charming leads and a briefly amusing mythology (Sleepy Hollow, though that's no longer the case), Kat McPhee and giddy dumb-as-nails ridiculousness (Scorpion) or a somewhat intriguing and topical mythology (Person of Interest). In short, if I watch a network procedural, it tends to be for reasons having nothing to do with procedure, nothing to do with the case of the week or how it's investigated. The closest I previously came to an exception was The Good Wife, which isn't really a procedural, but still keeps my attention with its weekly "Alicia and company learn the rules of a different legal system" plotlines. (I'm not counting the various superhero shows I watch as procedurals. You can either agree or find that hypercritical.)
 
 
Limitless, however, is a procedural that I found myself enjoying precisely for its procedural aspects. Week after week, series creator Craig Sweeny and the Limitless writers found different variably creative ways to show how slacker-turned-genius Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) was operating within the FBI, especially how he was interacting with handler Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter). Using Brian's pop culture-inclined brain as an excuse, the writers justified doing a Ferris Bueller's Day Off homage ("Brian Finch's Black Op"), telling the backstory of a key villain in animated sequences ("Sands, Agent of Morra"), spinning a late-series episode through the perspective of the female lead and fragmenting time and geography in a series of tricky directions. The crimes Brian solved were only sometimes engaging, but the way that Brian's drug-accelerated mind saw his new-found occupation was almost always fresh, tweaking the conventions of spy and action movies with both a wink and sturdy execution.
 
Marc Webb directed the first two Limitless episodes, and my immediate concern was that a shift from a helmer versed in lively genre entertainment to a stable of in-house directors might lead to a decline in the show's aesthetic whimsy, but that never turned out to be the case. Feature-trained stylists like Guillermo Navarro and Lexi Alexander maintained the smorgasbord of references and expanded a language liberally spiked with split-screens, onscreen text, showy camera angles and editing, and every imaginable way of delivering exposition other than the stagnant monologuing that is a genre hallmark. And Doug Aarniokoski, the series' directing producer, helped set a template that was encouragingly repeatable. 
 
Even on the fantastical NZT, Brian wasn't always a dynamic leading character, and I've talked to a number of viewers who tuned out because they weren't gripped by Brian or by McDorman, but my sense of fun as a viewer was often governed by how much fun Brian was having, no matter how high the stakes seemed to be — and Brian usually seemed to be having fun. 
 
The failure to fully build those stakes and the season-long arc is a big part of why Limitless never became as addictive as NBC's somewhat similar Chuck. By the penultimate episode, Limitless was paying almost direct tribute to Chuck, as an NZT-free Brian was working at an electronics store and given a sloppy bearded sidekick. But while Chuck tended to be propelled by any given season's corporate/institutional Big Bad and also by the flirtation-into-romance of Chuck and Sarah, Limitless couldn't really find that thrust.
 
Resisting making Rebecca into an immediate love interest for Finch was a choice and not necessarily a bad one, but flirtation gives shows a reliable tension to fall back on. Here, giving the two leads a bickering-but-convivial sibling relationship played well (though we all saw what happened with the sibling relationship on Carpenter's last show), but in a low-key way. Even taking away obscenities, her most potent Dexter ammunition, Carpenter turned out to be the lone supporting character who was a reliable foil for Finch on a weekly basis. I liked the peripheral characters on Limitless — Mike (Michael James Shaw) and Ike (Tom Degnan) and Stavros (Musto Pelinkovicci) and guest star Sands (Colin Salmon) — much more than alleged cast regulars Spellman (Hill Harper) and Naz (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio). Spellman and Naz both got a showcase episode or two, but they were more frequently irrelevant than integral. Plotlines featuring Finch's family were also spotty, despite the presence of Ron Rifkin, who played Finch's father and almost never was able to make sense of the motivations behind anything his character did. I kept watching and assuming dear ol' dad would turn out to be evil in some way, but that was vestigial Alias affection more than anything in the story.
 
The biggest flaw that Limitless faced was there from the pilot and before: They decided to connect the TV series directly to the profitable movie starring Bradley Cooper. Cooper is a producer on the TV Limitless, but that really could have been sufficient. Instead, they introduced Cooper's Eddie Morra in the pilot as a senator with higher political aspirations, and by the end of the season, he was the frequently mentioned but rarely seen bad guy (maybe). Cooper availability to guest star was, ironically, limited, both in terms of time and the things he was willing to do, so I'd be hard-pressed to think of a moment he appeared and I said, "Oh good, Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper is back," rather than "Oh, the guy from Burnt was in New York for 12 hours, so he dropped in." The two-part finale was almost nonstop references to Morra and his machinations, and I was certain he would at least Skype in to say "Hi, maybe you'll catch me next season" in the last scene, but nothing. Limitless ended up a reminder that you shouldn't overinvest in a character played by an actor who you don't have under set contract. Cooper's absent centrality caused Limitless to flounder when unfolding its mythology, so good thing I actually do enjoy the procedure, assuming I'm interested in following it.
 
With Morra constantly one step ahead of Brian and his team, like a chemically enhanced Carmen Sandiego, the finale's procedure was, at best, nonsense. Something about a disagreement between Canada and Greenland over shipping rights to the Northwest Passage, which was just a ruse for a secondary tier of bad guys to profit off of a financial bubble? Or whatever. The finale's fun came from watching Brian, stripped of his immunity enzyme, taking NZT, but experiencing it with an assortment of hallucinations, time gaps and distortions. The show went to the "Brian goes renegade and takes NZT on his own" well too many times in the second half of the season for it to really land meaningfully in the finale, and the finale's biggest twist/revelation — Piper gives Brian a permanent NZT side-effect immunity shot — was a reset and a complication cop out at the same time.
 
I think the setup is for Brian and his FBI team to go after NZT-fueled criminals and Morra at the same time in a hypothetical second season, but that falls short of gripping. My hope is that Piper's arrival and the alleged cure were just another hallucination (or that she was in evil legion with his father) and that Brian's path will become rockier next season, because nothing is gained, even in a show called Limitless, from taking away limitations. I'm sure Superman has gotten countless kryptonite cures and shields or repellents over the years, but I'm also sure that the comic books keep finding a way for kryptonite to eventually mess Superman up. So I'm hoping either that that wasn't Piper at the end (or Brian's dad) or that what she injected Brian with wasn't a real cure. 
 
 
A few other quick thoughts on the Limitless season finale:
 
*** Three cheers for the grammatically enthusiastic episode title "Finale: Part Two!!" Thanks to this and Everybody Wants Some!! this is the spring of the double exclamation point.
 
*** The dormant volcano supervillain lair was a good gimmick this week, with Sands holding a meeting surrounded by spouting CG lava and characters in shiny spandex. Brian's superhero alter ego of The Brunisher wasn't that funny, but I liked the stereotypical Canadian hero in the maple leaf garb. As Canadian stereotyping goes, this was better than the Good Wife visit to the border two weeks ago. Much better. But I'll write about The Good Wife's clumsy stumble toward the finish line in the weeks to come.
 
*** So you bring in Jacob Pitts from Justified for a two-episode arc and you basically forget him in the second episode? Man, if I wanted to watch Jacob Pitts being wasted, I'd probably rather rewatch Justified.
 
*** Going back to the penultimate episode, I'm assuming that Brian-on-NZT would have known he was using "begs the question" incorrectly and Brian-off-NZT misused it in a voiceover as an illustration of how clueless Brian-off-NZT is. Or else the writers just don't care.
 
*** Mike's name is Daryl. Or is Ike's name Daryl? They'll always be Mike & Ike to me and I'll never care which is which.
 
*** Next season, more Stavros.
 
Ratings for Limitless haven't been so great this spring, but with Castle and Sleepy Hollow likely to fall out of my rotation for tinkering-to-death my favorite parts, I hope CBS lets me keep this creative procedural in my viewing rotation. This is certainly a much better look for the CBS procedural brand than the repulsive Criminal Minds: Beyond Borders. It's nice to see a show settling into being the best version of itself and, more than most of the 2015-16 season's new shows, Limitless lived up to its potential, which ought to be rewarded somehow.
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