Public Service Announcement 37 of 2017: Star Trek: Discovery; The Good Place; Ken Burns’s The Vietnam War; Limitless

If Unpopcult stood for anything (and, frankly, we don’t; we’re just messing around) it would be that there’s no such thing as a guilty pleasure. And – more pertinently for the purposes of this PSA – that we in the UK should get to see American shows as soon as possible after original transmission.

Two cheers, therefore, for Netflix UK. Firstly, it’s giving British viewers episodes of Star Trek: Discovery within a day of first showing in the USA. Bryan Fuller and Alex Kurtzman are co-creators for CBS All Access, and the initial word is positive. I’m not even going to attempt any sort of introduction, because I have no interest in the Star Trek “universe”, but our CJ might be reviewing the first episode at least (Netflix, now).

Secondly, it has become the UK home for highly-rated sitcom The Good Place: season 1 is available now, and season 2 episodes will be available shortly after American broadcast. This stars Kristen Bell as a woman who dies and, as a result of an administrative error, is sent upstairs rather than downstairs, if you’ll forgive the complex theology. The magnificent Ted Danson presides over Bell’s particular Good Place (Netflix, now).

What the heck; lets have another cheer for Netflix UK, because it also has the one and only season of the sublime Limitless, which we watched, loved, reviewed, and then mourned. Based on the film, and with Bradley Cooper making occasional guest appearances, it’s a riot of wit and invention which stands comparison with Chuck in its pomp. We love this show, and we love Jake McDorman in it. And, for British drama fans, season 2 of Happy Valley has made its way there (both Netflix, now).

And now some documentaries. Not to be outdone by Netflix, the BBC has snapped up Ken Burns’s series The Vietnam War, which is being shown at the moment in America. The reviews would suggest that this is outstanding (tonight, BBC 4, 9pm, double-bill).

BBC 4 is also repeating its series An Art Lover’s Guide, hosted by the charming Janina Ramirez and Alistair Sooke. The first episode is set in Amsterdam, quite possibly my favourite city in the world. It’s following that with a new series, Britain’s Lost Masterpieces, which starts with the discovery of a possible Rubens masterpiece in a Glasgow museum (Wednesday, BBC 4, 8pm and 9pm).

There’s more to come later in the week as well; we’re getting busy again.

Limitless s1 ep 22


Spoilers, and a volcano lair.

‘Finale: Part 2!!’. Nearly done. As the search for Sands and his Legion of Whom gets under way Brian is back with the CJC, and back on the NZT. He deduces that the best way to find them – and their volcano lair, heh – is to work out what the Legion wants. But his immunity shots are wearing off and the NZT side-effects are starting to overwhelm him; he’s hallucinating,

As it happens, what Sands and the Legion are planning is a typically off-the-wall spin on a fairly standard plot: they want to make money by shorting certain stocks, but their scheme depends on the consequences of a melting ice-shelf, the emergence of a new Northwest Passage, and just how Canada and Greenland are going to divide the spoils of that. And, meantime, Brian is trying to find Piper: partly because she can provide him with immunity shots, and partly because he likes her, which means that the potential Brian and Rebecca hookup isn’t happening. In fairness, it should be said that the show has kept their friendship nicely balanced; apart from the occasional glance and what-if? it’s been plausibly platonic.

So Canadian nationalism rears its head – while wearing a spectacular bodysuit; a couple of diplomats get shot; the NZT lab is found; Sands takes a bullet. And Piper – perhaps improbably, but let’s not quibble at this stage in the game – turns up at Brian’s family house to give him a permanent immunity shot, before leaving again; she doesn’t want anyone else to get access to the antidote, but Brian deserves it. In fact, one of the themes of this episode is – and, again, we’ve picked up on this before – that NZT didn’t change Brian’s fundamental personality; it just made him a mega-intelligent version of who he already was. “You’re a hero”, Rebecca tells him, possibly still angling for some post-Piper sugar. “On or off the pill”. So the CDC wants him back, and he’s even getting his own crime-fighting squad, which is a satisfying, if low-stakes, ending. And there’s room for a coda, sweet and funny by turns, in which Brian recruits for his squad. As a season finale it leaves a couple of loose ends – where’s Piper going, where’s Morra, and whither Brebecca? – but nothing too consequential, which means it also works as a series finale. Which is good; because, of course, it is.

Now, I get slightly irked when people claim that a show they love has been cancelled because, y’know, it’s just too intelligent/quirky/witty/sui generis for everyone else. The quickest of looks around the current landscape proves that, more than any other time in TV history, there’s something for everyone. (And, as I’ve said before, the bar has been raised even for standard procedurals, which have a speed and complexity that couldn’t have been contemplated ten years ago. Say what you like about Quantico, for instance – and we just have – but you couldn’t complain about a shortage of plots. If anything, it’s too cluttered.)

But sometimes, no matter how good it is, a show just doesn’t find its audience. Perhaps Limitless would have been more successful, in relative terms, on a cable or streaming channel; we’ll never know. It will stand, though, as a season’s worth of dazzling, inventive, imaginative TV, which I would still wholeheartedly recommend to anyone who hasn’t seen it. After the clusterfuck that was late-period Dexter, it was lovely to see Jennifer Carpenter visibly enjoying herself again (I think). And in due course the real takeaway might be that Jake McDorman is a genuine, name-up-in-lights star. I hope to see him back on TV soon, in another vehicle worthy of his talents.


Limitless s1 ep 21

Four weeks have elapsed since the events of the previous episode. Brian is out of the FBI, off NZT, living with his parents, and – in what I’m going to interpret as a shoutout to Chuck, one of this show’s spiritual antecedents – working in an electrical goods store which might as well be called the Buy More. He’s managed to persuade the FBI to call Sands’s team of handpicked villains the Legion of Whom, but apart from that he’s out of the picture.

Meantime, there’s a blizzard of illicit NZT on the streets, which means that the FBI is being helped by the DEA, represented by an agent called Brewster. I don’t think it’s remotely a spoiler to say that, from the first moment we see him, Agent Brewster is very obviously a wrong ‘un. But we’ll need to wait for confirmation of that. Brian is desperately trying to offer his help – possibly in return for a little FBI-sanctioned NZT? – but Rebecca keeps pushing him away, which means that Brian has to track down the people behind the NZT epidemic with the help of Grover, a colleague from the store, and some street NZT.

So there are two investigations running in parallel. And when the FBI/DEA task force starts rounding up suspects, all of whom admit to being involved in trafficking NZT, Brian has to contemplate the possibility that, for the first time, NZT hasn’t helped him to the right answer: he and Grover have worked their way through a succession of dealers, ending up with a mysterious – and possibly hallucinated? – Mr Big known as Apocryphon, but that’s not going to impress Rebecca when she has half-a-dozen actual suspects in custody, with evidence and admissions.

Except, of course, Brian isn’t mistaken. I liked ‘Finale: Part 1!’, but in all honesty I didn’t love it: so much of the success of Limitless so far has, for me, rested on the chemistry between Brian and Rebecca, and the plot of this episode depends on them not working together, with Grover not much of a substitute. I felt as if the episode really came to life when Brian gatecrashes an FBI swoop on the plane of Senator Morra, persuades Naz and Rebecca that they’re looking in the wrong direction, and is dragged along with them as they, all too late, realise what Brewster is up to.

Limitless s1 ep 20

It’s Rebecca’s turn to narrate, in “Hi. My Name Is Rebecca Harris”, although when we first see her she’s about to be shot. Winding back a little, we pick up at the end of the last episode, and the conversation between Brian and Rebecca which has been coming for the whole season: he promised not to lie to her, he’s been lying to her, and he needs to come clean. Which he does, about (I think) more or less everything; all the good stuff, anyway, like her father, the enzyme, Morra, the coat, Piper, Sands, and a stolen lasagne. Rebecca is all, well, let’s get Sands for killing my father, and I’m going to take your daily NZT dose to help things along.

Unsurprisingly, Rebecca on NZT is an even more amazing detective than normal (Brian rightly says it’s not fair), which means that even after she gets shot by Sands’s man she’s more than up to the task of dangling bait and tempting Sands into having a nibble. (In the middle of that I really liked Sands texting Brian to warn him immediately before the shots were fired. Sands has been less of an out-and-out villain than he at first seemed to be.) Admittedly the show needs some less-than-convincing scientific jiggery-pokery to get to where it wants to be, including a conversation, using a homemade EEG, with someone who has locked-in syndrome. Brian and Rebecca think he can be used as a witness in court. Uh, not sure about that, dudes.

The real kicker comes at the end, when Rebecca deduces that, by bringing Sands down, Brian has sacrificed his immunity shots for her sake. Piper is still out there, I suppose, although that might mean a shipping dilemma – did Rebecca’s “father” mean that she likes Brian, or that she likes Brian? But with Sands’s team now having the ability to manufacture NZT and its antidote, only two more episodes – ever – to go, and the show apparently now incapable of being less than stunning, we’re going out on a high.

Limitless s1 ep 19

Brian is back home, but isn’t strutting around quite as much as before: Naz, understandably, wasn’t delighted when Brian hit Russia while carrying contraband NZT. So he’s had the HQ! taken away, there are lots of new rules, and two additional minders: Mr X and Mr Y, supervising him 24/7. Mr Y will, in due course, turn out to be a Sands placeman.

But before that there’s a Case of the Week to be solved: the murder of billionaire Gordon Roper, who had his right kidney removed by the killer. Roper had been awaiting a transplant, and to start with it looks as if he jumped the queue and bought a kidney, which was subsequently repossessed. Now, at this point I was thinking “Hang about – hasn’t someone already done organ repossession, and quite recently as well?” (Answer: yes.)

Then the storyline changes direction and becomes about the pioneering 3D printing of a live and transplantable human organ, with Roper interested both as someone needing a kidney, and as an investor in Biosoma, the company developing the technology. And then it becomes something else again, with poor old Stavros taking one for the team in order to track down the sort of underworld doctor capable of transplant surgery. In lesser hands the Case would have been something of an afterthought, given how much else was going on in the episode, but it was brisk, imaginative and fun; and it even gave us a gleefully nasty conclusion, which also served to explain the episode’s title.

Meantime, the season-long arc is increasing in intensity. Piper is back in NYC, having developed the enzyme which will free her and Brian from Morra. In order to meet her, Brian needs to shake Mr Y; what he doesn’t know, though, is that Ike and Mike are also following him, at Rebecca’s direction. Piper doesn’t turn up for their meeting, though, and someone leaves her bloodstained bracelet in Brian’s safe house. So Brian confronts Morra, who says that he didn’t know Piper was still alive, and concludes that Sands has gone rogue, although he seems relaxed about it. Surprisingly so, given that Sands now has a gang of villains and the capability, thanks to Piper, to manufacture NZT and its antidote. But in any event Rebecca’s had more than enough, and when Brian gets home she’s waiting for him with a pair of handcuffs, and not in a good way. Another terrific episode.

Limitless s1 ep 18

After last week’s clustereff – which had been coming since the start of the season, but was no less traumatic for that – Brian has decided that he needs to get himself free of his dependence on Morra and Sands. The only way of doing that is to ensure that he doesn’t need the shots he’s been getting, and the only way of doing that is to track down Piper, the former Morra/Sands employee from episode 12. Which he does.

To St Petersburg, then – a spot of in-previous-episodes exposition is handled as imaginatively and wittily as ever; this show works really hard at drawing newbies in – where Piper is in prison, having tried to steal, from an absurdly wealthy Russian oligarch, an ingredient she needs to synthesise the enzyme in the anti-NZT shot. Brian manages, with the co-operation of George RR Martin, to leverage her release. The two of them plan to go back to the oligarch’s house, when he’s holding a party, and try again. But this time they’re going undercover… as a pretend married couple.

As you know, when it’s the show OTC who play at being husband and wife this, in Unpopcult’s firmly-held view, is the second-greatest gift a procedural can bestow on its audience. Brian and Piper don’t quite fall into that category, but there was certainly chemistry when they first met, and even more so this time, because they have to wait a week or so for the party, so they do it a few times. And who can blame either of them, really? They’re both pretty adorable, although interestingly the show hints quite strongly that Piper is something of an NZT evangelist, with views which aren’t a million miles from Morra’s. There’s also a suggestion that they might, y’know, stay together, be normal, and forget this NZT thing, although we know that probably isn’t going to happen.

In the meantime, Rebecca is trying to find Brian, although doing so from several thousand miles away. In the course of that she visits his family home, whence she’s very firmly chased away by Dennis, Brian’s father. It’s always good to be reminded anew of just how good an actor Ron Rifkin is: he can radiate avuncular charm or chilly menace as required. All in all, ‘Bezgranichnyy’ is another absolutely dazzling episode, one of the best yet. The pleasure of watching Limitless now comes overlaid with sadness, though, because there isn’t that much of it to go.

Limitless s1 ep 17

Brian’s trying to salve his conscience about his constant lying to Rebecca. This he does by taking one of his secret stash of NZTs, and heading onto the streets at night for some additional, out-of-hours crime-fighting. But then the lights start going out in Manhattan, which Brian traces to a mysterious bacteria that feeds off electricity. As he and Rebecca investigate they’re exposed to the bacteria. And, since it might be of extra-terrestrial origin (spoiler: it isn’t), and might be deadly (spoiler: it isn’t), and they might be contagious (spoiler: they aren’t) the two of them are put in quarantine.

Now, a few weeks ago, when reviewing a spectacular Blindspot, CJ suggested that the going-undercover-as-a-couple kind of episode is “the second-greatest gift a procedural TV show can give”. I’d also put the “quarantine” genre in the top 5. You know the sort of thing: the show’s will-they-won’t-they OTC find themselves in an industrial refrigerator with no hope of rescue, or in a locked bank vault, or in a broken-down lift in an office building when everyone’s gone home for the weekend and their phones are out of charge. Or in any situation which forces them to confront their feelings about each other; then, ideally, make out like teenagers. Such as, for example, quarantine.

It was pretty clear from the get-go, though, that this wasn’t happening here. Firstly, the place where Brian and Rebecca are quarantined is like a greenhouse rather than a love-nest, with plenty of people watching them, so any chance of “Well, if one of us is contagious then both of us are, so if we’re gonna die anyway…” is out of the question. But then the two of them start arguing – Rebecca had Brian’s house searched and some of his contraband NZT had been found – and the trust and truth issues which have been there since the first episode are finally out in the open. In fact, when the two of them get out of quarantine – saliva very much not swapped – Rebecca tells Brian that he’s getting a new handler as she can no longer work with him.

Not only that, but Brian’s sister Rachel had decided, despite his warnings, to confide in her family – and in Ike – about the incident in last week’s episode when the injured Sands turning up at Brian’s door. And she’d also worked out there was a drug involved, and had even lifted a couple of them herself. Which means that when Brian, seeking a refuge from the Rebecca situation, turns up at his parents’ house he’s cold-shouldered by his mother, who – understandably – thinks he’s mixed up in the sort of things that a mother doesn’t want her son mixed up in. To a certain extent, of course, she’s right about that.

The blackout will turn out to be cover for a crime which is of no great consequence: the episode’s real takeaway is Brian’s deception of family and co-workers finally catching up with him, as it was always going to. And so, with nowhere to turn, he decides that he’s got to do something to fix his relationship with Rebecca, and he leaves her an apologetic note saying that he’s going away. It’s not the episode I was expecting by any means, but it’s powerful and surprisingly sombre, and demonstrates just how well Jake McDorman and Jennifer Carpenter have fleshed out their characters.

Limitless s1 ep 16

Brian is hanging out at home with his sister Rachel (Megan Guinan) who, as we are reminded in the previouslies, Ike thinks is cute. It could reasonably be argued that Ike has a point. Before I can spend too long thinking about just how much of a point Ike has, though, the peace is disturbed: Sands turns up at the door, bleeding copiously from a wound on his leg, in all likelihood caused by the piece of glass sticking out of it.

One NZT later Brian has sufficient field surgery skills to repair the worst of the damage, but the night has just started: Sands demands Brian’s help in finding someone called Frederick Tanner, who has forced Sands to hunt down and kill his, Sands’s, old army buddies. In the course of finding out why, we get plenty of Sands backstory, partly rendered as a series of chapters from a comic book.

All of this, though, means that Rebecca can’t find Brian in order to work an urgent CJC case, in which a young boy, the son of an American diplomat with access to UN Security Council information, has been abducted. Ike is sent to Brian’s apartment to wait for him, and since Rachel is still there, and Ike is quite willing to play up his role in keeping Brian safe for impressing-the-ladies purposes, they will of course hook up. But in the meantime Rebecca needs to get on with finding the kidnapped boy for herself. Not for the first time, she proves herself almost as good without NZT as Brian is with it.

It probably took me longer than it should have to work out the link between the two plots, but when it’s revealed it explains a lot about Sands, Tanner, and why Sands is so ready to do Tanner’s bidding. And as Sands and Brian close in on Tanner, there’s a telling moment when Brian – who’s been going to considerable lengths to try to prevent any killing – tells Sands to “do what you have to do”, knowing what that means. It mitigates the idea that Brian is too squeaky-clean to exist in the world he’s found himself in, and it provides a human connection of sorts between Brian and Sands.

There’s a further twist, though: it’s Rebecca’s birthday, and she’s mightily pissed off about it. (As am I on mine, but I’m older, so I’m allowed to be.) Her reason for that is powerful enough, but it contains yet another connection to the main plot, when Brian discovers that Rebecca’s father was killed by someone we know. ‘Sands, Agent of Morra’ is another superbly imaginative and entertaining episode, which puts beyond doubt that – notwithstanding the show’s cancellation – Jake McDorman is a star, and one who presumably won’t need to wait too long for another vehicle. And we even got the return of Brian’s FBI t-shirt.

Limitless s1 ep 15

640-4Oh wow. After a couple of weeks of treading water, Limitless came roaring back this week with an utterly fantastic episode. Confidently writing its own mythology from the start – the title, ‘Undercover!’, inviting direct comparison with the dazzling ‘Headquarters!’ episode; and the subtitle, ‘A Romantic Caper in Three Assignments’, telling us exactly how it’s going to do it – the show then did its very best to deliver on its promises.

There’s a framing device – Brian, being interviewed, explaining how something or other went down – but that needn’t detain us. The premise is that the FBI’s list of undercover agents has been stolen, but not yet leaked, so the agents still in the field need to be brought in before they’re in danger. Five agents haven’t yet been found, so Brian and his “team” are asked to help. He tracks four down pretty quickly – and even this brief sequence is a model of wit and invention – leaving only one, Lucy Church, thought to be undercover at a corrupt hedge fund.

Brian manages to find Lucy as well (hee on the big signs) but she wants to stay undercover, because she’s found out that the hedge fund has been laundering money for an upmarket escort agency, The Blue Limit, which has been using trafficked women and holding their passports so that they can’t escape. So it’s agreed that she can have two more days to bring the traffickers in, with Brian’s more or less willing help. First up is a Blue Limit benefit – is this a thing? Benefits for high-class knocking-shops? – at which Brian is undercover! as a client, with Lucy on his arm.

Having worked out who has the passports, undercover! assignment 2 for Brian is temping at The Blue Limit, where he steals the passports – then spends an afternoon making some money betting on horse racing, in order to give the trafficked women some funds as well. Now, because Lucy is hot, and Brian is Brian, and it’s a romantic caper, there have been sparks flying all over the place from their very first meeting. But this convinces Lucy that Brian is a nice guy – which he is – and the two of them totally Bollywood. How Rebecca feels about this is hard to discern; she certainly approved of Brian in a suit, but the show is still leaving itself some wiggle room if it decides not to pursue Brebecca (?).

And the third undercover! assignment is at a company called Edelweiss, whose name keeps cropping up in The Blue Limit’s ledgers. By this point Brian’s NZT has run out, and it shows. (Interestingly, we will find out in due course that Lucy has worked out Brian’s deal. Also – once again – Brian off NZT is still as moral as Brian on NZT, if not as brilliant.) The Big Bad behind the trafficking is at Edelweiss; Lucy gives serious consideration to killing him, but Brian – still holding himself partly responsible for the death of the custody clerk in last week’s episode – just about manages to talk her down. Lucy will then disappear out of Brian’s life, Cheshire Cat-like, leaving her smile behind, and I’d be happy to see her back.

But it’s not all romantic capers, and as ever, the show manages to balance the fun and the darkness: Rebecca is invited for a meeting with Sands, who offers her a generously-compensated job working for Morra. Rebecca not only declines the offer but discloses to Sands that she’s investigated him and discovered that he was bought off by Morra himself. Which is smart, but puts Rebecca in even more danger. Undercover! is an excellent demonstration of why this show is so very much more than a standard procedural, and of why we’re going to miss it.

Limitless s1 ep 14

There’s a lot to like – as there always is – about this episode of Limitless. Brian and Rebecca investigate the death of Eloise Carlisle, a software engineer at CRAFT, the firm which a couple of weeks ago gave Brian a jetpack, and gave us the stellar ‘Arm-ageddon’ episode. Eloise had been working on Project Mind-Vault, in which the contents of a brain are downloaded into a computer, then uploaded into a robotic head thingy. As she had also mind-vaulted her own brain, this affords Brian and Rebecca the novel opportunity to interview an after-the-fact murder victim to try to find out if anyone had been threatening her.

Meantime, in what will, I suspect, turn out to be the most significant part of the episode, Rebecca is refusing to let Senator Morra’s assassination attempt go; having established that the coats were switched, she’s trying to find out who might have done it. Brian is torn here: as well as trying to persuade Sands that the investigation is done and dusted, thus protecting Rebecca, he knows that when she finds out what happened she will regard this as a betrayal too far. And Mike and Ike have recruited a third body man – Spike – for Brian, whose Headquarters! now has – or have they always been there? – fetching “Business” and “Pleasure” neon signs, to be switched on and off as the conversation in the office requires.

The problem with ‘Fundamentals of Naked Portraiture’, though, is that the A-plot stubbornly refuses to leave the runway. There are some interesting ideas about consciousness in there – and some sinister robot heads – but compared to what, say, Elementary did with a broadly similar concept, Limitless didn’t quite get there, and cramming an episode’s worth of exposition into thirty seconds is admission rather than mitigation.

But now I need to process the news that the show has been cancelled by CBS. I’m far too long in the tooth to take these things personally, or throw around accusations about broadcasters hating shows (they don’t care), or treating audiences like idiots (ditto), or not giving shows time to grow (they almost never grow); it’s a business, and if Limitless isn’t paying its way then it’s inevitable that it’ll be sacrificed. I do, though, think it’s a great shame that a show as imaginative, inventive, and witty as this couldn’t find the audience it needed. And deserved.