How Does CBS' 'Limitless' Compare to the Bradley Cooper Feature?

"We accept everything that happened in the movie. There's nothing that we're saying, 'That's not how it works,' " executive producer Craig Sweeny tells THR of the freshman drama.
David M. Russell/CBS

CBS on Tuesday hopes that Limitless, a new drama series follow-up to the 2011 Bradley Cooper movie, will put a new spin on its tried-and-true procedural. 

The drama focuses on the events that unfold when a little clear pill gives a struggling everyman the ability to unlock his unlimited potential. The drama, which counts Cooper as an executive producer, builds on the world depicted in the feature film but centers on Brian Finch (Jake McDorman, Shameless, Manhattan Love Story), a slacker who puts his hopes and dreams in a musical career that likely will never take off because of his crappy work ethic. As everyone around him progresses in their career, Brian finds himself at rock bottom until an old friend offers him NZT. With that one pill, Brian manages to turn his life around — but not without drawing attention from the FBI.

Brian's origin story may seem very familiar to fans of the film. Executive producer Craig Sweeny (Elementary, Medium) says the goal was to craft a character who paralleled Cooper's Eddie Morra from the 2011 movie, though the similarities don't end there.

"I took a look at the pilot and I thought, 'What are the essential things in this pilot that I want to capture from the film?' " says Sweeny to The Hollywood Reporter. "The two things we wanted to capture were the visual style and what they did with the camera. I also liked the story of a guy who's fighting to turn his life around so those are the two things I wanted in the pilot story."

Here, Sweeny talks with THR  about continuing the Limitless story, the effects of NZT and how the series will handle Finch's extra-human capabilities.

Why continue the Limitless story?

I saw an opportunity to tell a new story with a very interesting McGuffin rather than retelling a story that's already been told or continuing a story. Brian and Eddie are very different people. The universe of our show acknowledges the movie and interacts with the characters and events. I liked the device at the heart of the concept. There was a lot pneumatic weight behind it. The other thing I loved about the movie was the visual style, panache and setting. I came from writing Elementary, which is a great job but it's all about writing words for Sherlock and Joan to save each other. It is a banter and a deduction show. I was looking to play with more cinematic techniques.

Were there any tweaks made in terms of the adaptation? Does the show follow the same rules as the movie? Like the mythology behind NZT and how it works?

We accept everything that happened in the movie. There's nothing that we're saying, "That's not how it works." We're adjusting the tone to more storytelling like we want to do, but we kept everything the same in terms of rules for the universe. We're actually just building on to it a lot more.

What's the path for the season? Is this going to be a procedural case of the week show with a character who uses NZT to help the FBI or is it building toward something?

I don't know if it needs to be more but it's a little bit of both. Most often Brian has a case or a problem that is taken care of within the time of the episode. We advanced the serialized storyline for the story of why Brian is in the FBI who created the key, who else has access to it, all these questions are asked and treated every single episode. I would say it's about half and half. Half self-contained storytelling and half-serialized.

In the movie, Eddie becomes a self-made man. He improves himself to the point where he becomes part of the government. What's Brian's direction? Did you want him to be part of the FBI instead of following Eddie's footsteps?

Eddie is a little bit of an anti-hero in the film. The first thing he does after he takes the pill is he sleeps with somebody's wife. The question for me while watching the movie raised questions on whether the old version of Eddie would even like the new version of Eddie. We continue to play with that with Eddie's character but Brian is a different character altogether and it's very important to Brian to maintain a connection to who he was before he started taking NZT. It's the essential difference between them. Brian wants to remain Brian and Sen. Edward Morra (Cooper) was all too happy to leave Eddie Morra behind. Brian is going to take a very different path with NZT than Eddie did. For Brian, integrity and being true to himself are very important in a way that they aren't always for Eddie.

The existence of NZT in the movie wasn't widely known. The FBI in the series seems to know quite a bit about the drug. How widespread is NZT and the knowledge of it at the start of the series?

It was an essential part of the concept of the series. Of course the government is interested in the drug. It is not widely available; the street availability has been clamped down by a few people but there is knowledge of the existence of the drug within a few select circles. Not every FBI agent you see in the pilot knows about it. But a certain number of people with high security clearances have read about it and are aware of it. It's not a secret in the sense that only one person knows about it. It's not a public fact in the series, though.

At the end of the movie, Eddie has developed NZT to a point where he is able to see into the future. Is his version of NZT the one we're going to be seeing in the main series of the show or are there different versions?

There are definitely different versions of the drug. Eddie is definitely the furthest along in terms of developing the drug, but everybody else who knows about it and studies about it is trying to play catch up to him. I wouldn't say there is a version of NZT that turns you purple or anything like that. The effects of NZT are all fundamentally the same. It's more the refinements and the quality of it and how well this drug affects a person. That's what Eddie knows.

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In terms of the side effects, what can people watching the series expect? And how will that affect the plot?

You can expect us to deal with their existence and the extremely unsettling nature of the drug. Brian gets the booster shot in the pilot and has to keep getting them to remain in the FBI. Brian is very eligible to experience side effects and it's something we're playing with and treating very aggressively.

When Brian is on it, he is pretty much a super soldier. When you're writing a show like this, what's the counter to something this powerful?

It's tough. It's a particular challenge in this kind of show. I'm dealing with different versions of it because I wrote for Elementary, and there's a similar plot there. We have had to find ways to "confound" the NZT in order for the show to work. Brian has to have the freedom to be wrong and we have to clearly define what the drug does. Brian is able to make that jump down from balcony to balcony to balcony. But for us that was a valid moment because it was filtered through his brain and allowed him to make use of his own body in that way. He can't transcend physics when he's on the drug so he doesn't become a superhero and there are definitely limitations to it, but it really is about finding problems that are worthy of a guy who has such a tool at his disposal.

What can we expect from Rebecca's (Jennifer Carpenter, Dexter) relationship with Brian? How is that relationship going to build?

You can expect a friendship to develop between the two of them. Brian is purposeful at the beginning of the series. Rebecca doesn't carry that burden. She's found the place where she wants to be. Her fate is cracking cases. And it gives her satisfaction. Brian, for her, is a chance to do that with a big ol' expletive next to it. She takes a lot of secondhand satisfaction in what he's doing. I think that both respond to one another in that they can read a fundamental decency in one another. There's a lot they can't tell each other but they're both decent people and they develop a bond, a trust with one another which ultimately will be stronger in the end.

For people who have seen the movie, what's the appeal to revisit the franchise — and what's the draw for those who haven't?

If you have seen the movie and you like it for reasons that most people like it, you'll like our TV show. The pilot and the subsequent episodes we have done so far really capture the kind of fun and hopefully inventive tone of the movie and bring it into the series we've made. What stuff you dug about the movie, is very much present in our show. If you didn't see the movie, you won't be behind because it's not a requirement that you're familiar with the movie to watch our show but I think you should watch it because it's a fresh and fun take on the content of the original.

Limitless airs Tuesdays on CBS. Will you watch?

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