Limitless arrives with a certain amount of baggage, for better or worse, from the 2011 Bradley Cooper-starring film. (Which I liked, but YMMV.) It also comes with ten – ten – executive producers, including Cooper himself; the Alex Kurtzman/Roberto Orci team from Alias and, more recently, Hawaii Five-0; Hangover trilogy director Todd Phillips; and (500) Days of Summer and Spider-Man reboot helmer Marc Webb, who directs these first two episodes. Too many cooks?
Well, let’s see. Twentysomething serial underachiever Brian Finch (Jake McDorman, not an actor with whom I’m familiar) is temping in a bank, and runs into an old friend, Eli, who provides him with miracle drug NZT. As we know from the film, NZT enables you to access all of your brain, or something, so quickly enough Brian is knocking the temping job out of the park, and in his spare time diagnosing his father’s (Ron Rifkin – always a pleasure) mysterious debilitating illness.
When he goes looking for more NZT, though – and who wouldn’t? – he finds Eli dead in his apartment, and immediately becomes the main suspect, pursued by Feds Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter, who was good in Dexter until she visibly lost interest), and Spelman Boyle (Hill Harper, who I didn’t see in CSY:NY, but who was interesting in the underrated Covert Affairs). Harris has a chance to shoot Brian, but seeing something in his eyes doesn’t take the shot: Secret Pain alert.
Brian goes after one of Eli’s co-workers, taking a bullet in the leg in the process. So he phones Harris, looking for tips in how to administer field surgery on oneself. But he passes out, and comes to in the custody of Senator Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper, bringing star megawattage and genuine menace), who has bad news: NZT, in short, will kill you unless you have access to another drug which counters its less pleasant side-effects. Morra thinks it will be useful to have Brian in play for as yet undisclosed reasons, so offers him drug number 2 on condition that he doesn’t tell the FBI.
And when Brian works out who killed Eli – it’s a somewhat perfunctory Crime of the Week, but it’s the pilot, there’s a lot of exposition to be done, so let’s cut them some slack – Harris realises it would be nice to have him and his NZT-powered mind on board as a consultant, solving crimes and having adventures. She persuades her boss, Nasreen (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who’s grumpy and demanding, and presumably will have cause to deploy the “…a word?” technique in early course. Unfortunately, it looks as if The Mentalist will continue to be the benchmark for tolerant, humorous FBI bosses. As it happens, though, The Mentalist is very much in point here: brilliant but maverick blond outsider (Jane/Brian) gets taken on as a consultant by the FBI to work with a dark-haired will-they-won’t-they? partner (Lisbon/Rebecca).
Which is how episode 2, ‘Badge! Gun!’ plays out. Brian is confined to the office to work as an analyst, while Harris and Boyle are in the field investigating the death of a journalist. He doesn’t want to be stuck there, of course, so against orders leaves his room – maverick! – to help out with the case, which quickly mushrooms into a ludicrous but fun story involving Genghis Khan (sic) and a genetically engineered virus.
There’s a bit of bespoke backstory as garnish – Harris’s father, Morra’s apparent ability to control the internet, and the nurse at the end was a nice twist – but on one level it’s a fairly standard procedural. It should be said that both episodes are shot with a remarkable amount of visual flair and wit. If you wanted evidence of how far TV has come in recent years – not the specialist cable shows, but standard network procedurals like this – it’s all up there on screen. It also has a certain playfulness which I found appealing: if Limitless were a person, it would have a raised eyebrow and a wry but likeable smile. On the downside I found Brian… a little annoying? There is, though, enough here to keep me watching.