Much has been made of CBS taking an unexpected detour into the superhero genre for Supergirl, but make no mistake: The network’s new Tuesday 10 p.m. drama Limitless is every bit a superhero show.
While Supergirl nimbly avoids many of the stumbling blocks of the obligatory origin story, Limitless isn’t as lucky and by the time viewers spend 45 minutes learning the rules, or lack thereof, of this extraordinary universe, sticking around to see what comes next may be less appealing.
Although it’s a sequel to the 2011 Bradley Cooper film, Limitless is almost structured more along the lines of pilot director Marc Webb‘s The Amazing Spider-Man, as extraordinary powers (and responsibilities) end up in the hands of a most ordinary young man. Directionless slacker Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) is still clinging to futile dreams of musical stardom long after his bandmates and friends and family have moved on and mostly accepted him as a lost cause. While wry voiceover helps us look at his lack of direction as blandly amiable, the cinematography, stripped of all but the chilliest of colors, makes him an object of pity. Then, in the midst of a soul-draining temp job, Brian runs into a former bandmate, who slips him a funky clear pill called NZT and mutters something about “neuroenhancers.”
In no time, NZT is working wonders. Webb visualizes the drug’s power by splashing the screen with chromatic warmth and imagining several of our main characters working simultaneously, not that NZT is capable of literally duplicating Jake McDoman. As for what NZT is capable of, the answer appears to be “anything we need it to be capable of and we’ll explain in the flimsiest ways possible.”
Limitless is obviously a superhero origin story and as with most superhero origin stories, the more you have to justify, the less effective it’s going to be. With Supergirl, it’s as simple as, “My cousin? Perhaps you’ve heard of him.” Spider-Man, in various incarnations, is always at its best when it can go, “Radioactive spider. You really don’t want to quibble.” But Limitless comes from the more complicated and absurd genre of Brain Capacity Expansion Fantasy. The Cooper movie found its main character using his NZT enhancements to write books, destroy the stock market, play the piano and escape the mob. In contrast, Scarlett Johansson‘s character in Lucy achieves 100% brain usage and becomes a God or maybe Morgan Freeman or something equally absurd.
CBS’ Limitless is somewhere in between those extremes, but doesn’t lack for ridiculousness. It’s one thing for Brian to have expanded guitar abilities and to be able to read complex medical books swiftly — his ailing father, played by Ron Rifkin, is a key source of humanizing — but in no time, Brian is also doing parkour and playing chicken with subway trains and writer Craig Sweeny keeps insisting on explaining things. NZT lets you remember “every documentary you ever saw” and helps you know exactly how much strength is in your fingers and other mumbo-jumbo. It’s silly and gets sillier with each attempted gloss on the premise. To their credit, Webb and McDorman work hard to keep the construction energetic and to keep Milquetoast Brian and Mega Brian distinctive. Your belief will be strained, but at least for 25 minutes, Limitless is a mindless hoot.
As the pilot senses its own end drawing near, Limitless has to dovetail into the elements that will let it be a weekly series, especially since the movie warned us that taking NZT is dangerous business. Enter Jennifer Carpenter as an FBI agent, Hill Harper as her personality-free partner and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as their personality-free boss. They all want a piece of Brian. And who can blame them? Between CBS’ short-lived Intelligence and NBC’s longer-running Chuck and older classics of this type like The Greatest American Hero, there’s an assumption that we know what the suited bureaucrats leveraging our accidental hero will look like, so Sweeny doesn’t even bother trying to make them into people. Carpenter’s Agent Harris has a few backstory details that Brian is about to suss out, because another NZT gift is either psychic powers or else Sherlockian levels of deduction and a crazed stalker’s eagerness to be creepy with his newfound knowledge. Carpenter is, pardon the pun, limited here by a pregnancy that keeps her mostly immobile and framed tightly and by CBS standards and practices which will never let the actress swear with the vicious glee she exhibited on Dexter.
Maybe the government side of the story would have gotten more meat if Limitless hadn’t been so eager to create continuity with the movie. So 30-plus minutes into the pilot, Bradley Cooper shows up as Eddie Morra, and his scene saps the pilot of all forward motion and left me imagining what Cooper’s contract read for his appearance. I’m thinking something along the lines of, “Mr. Cooper agrees to shoot for two hours. He will only be seated. If he’s going to read dialogue, none of that dialogue can be cut, no matter how boring it turns out to be. Nobody on the crew can tell him how much they loved Will Tippin.” Cooper appears to poorly explain away an ongoing NZT convolution and to open the door for future cameos whenever Cooper has free time in his schedule that lines up with an episode airing during a sweeps period.
Dating back to Greek, McDorman has shown signs of being ready for a TV showcase, even if last fall’s Manhattan Love Story offered a very cautionary tale on how swiftly Cooper’s American Sniper cohort can slip into smugness. Keeping McDorman’s character on the likable side of the ledger will put pressure on future directors, but not nearly as taxing as keeping up with Webb’s pilot panache, which may not even be possible on a weekly TV budget. The writers, meanwhile, will have to find a way to finesse weekly procedural plotting and the rationale behind Brian’s powers, because the exertion of the pilot’s second half isn’t a good look for what will only work if it’s a popcorn show.