Limitless s1 ep 3

It’s an unpromising start: as usual, the previouslies are followed by the episode proper, although since the first minute or two is Brian having some flashbacks, including just about everything we already saw in the previouslies, it looks like a way of maximising Bradley Cooper’s screentime without actually requiring him to do anything new.

Things get better after that, though. The Case of the Week is fairly standard procedural CotW stuff: a retired FBI agent is shot dead by a sniper in Bronx Park. He was investigating possible CEO candidates at a tech company, and they are the initial suspects; in addition, there’s clear evidence implicating a former Olympian as the shooter. But the sniper isn’t the actual sniper, the motive is something else entirely, and even if – SPOILER ALERT – the baddie is who you think it is, the plot is carried off with a reasonable, if not exceptional, amount of flair.

As ever with procedurals, though, it’s the surrounding detail which makes the difference, and for now Limitless is scoring very heavily in that department. There’s plenty of wit, both visual and otherwise: I liked the “tall sniper database”, the Miami Vice reference, the piranhas, and the explicitly Sherlockian cold reading with which Brian impresses an FBI drug squad.

And as a sort of B-plot, a NZT’d Brian bumps into Shauna, the girl who got away, giving him the opportunity to be a much more impressive version of himself second time round – and which of us hasn’t had that fantasy? But in due course he manages to be impressive enough even when the drug has worn off, which leaves hanging the possibility of whether Brian is actually becoming a better person as a result of what he’s doing. There’s a nature/nurture argument in there somewhere. On top of that Colin Salmon turns up near the end, accent perhaps a little too gorblimey for British ears, as Morra’s sinister point man. Highly enjoyable.

Limitless s1 ep 1; s1 ep 2

images-31Limitless 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.

images-30Brian 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.

Public Service Announcement 7 of 2016: Limitless, American Crime Story (The People v. O.J. Simpson), Heroes Reborn, Vinyl

With Person of Interest, Parks & Rec, The Blacklist, Blindspot, Scandal, and Quantico just some of the shows starting or returning in the UK over the next few weeks, Unpopcult’s dancecard is pretty much at full capacity. So we’re going to need to be selective.

We will, however, be making time for Limitless, the TV adaptation of the bonkers-but-entertaining 2011 film about a wonder drug which enables the user to maximise his or her potential. Jake McDorman is your man for the enhanced abilities, using them to help FBI agent Debra Morgan from Dexter. And Bradley Cooper, recurring only, reprises his role from the film as Eddie Morra. (Incidentally, when we were watching Alias all those years ago, did any of us anticipate that the dude occasionally playing the lovelorn journalist was going to end up as the biggest star of the whole cast? I certainly didn’t.) Limitless received lukewarm reviews when it started in America, but Unpopcult’s friend e assures us that it’s worth watching, and that it really gets going after a few episodes. Besides which, I actually like procedurals with a silly backstory (see The Blacklist, Blindspot, etc.). So I’ll review the first double-bill, and see how we get on after that (Wednesday 17 February, Sky 1, 9pm).

I’m also going to be watching, if not reviewing, American Crime Story, FX’s true crime anthology, which in its first season offers a dramatic reconstruction of the O.J. Simpson murder case of 1994-95. The show has an astonishing cast: Cuba Gooding, Jr., as the Juice, plus Nathan Lane, David Schwimmer, John Travolta, Courtney B. Vance, Bruce Greenwood, Sarah Paulson, Connie Britton, and others. Glee guys Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy are among the exec producers, and the show debuted in America about a fortnight ago to extravagant critical praise. It’s good to see the BBC investing again in quality US drama, and as a bonus it isn’t hanging on to the show for a year or so before showing it (tonight, BBC Two, 9pm).

But we’re not bothering with Heroes Reborn, the revival of a show which should have been put out of its misery long before the axe fell. Our CJ was one of the most stoic defenders of the original Heroes, and not even she is going to be watching (Tuesday 16 February, 5star, 9pm).

Nor with Sky Atlantic’s new HBO import Vinyl, which was simulcast in the middle of the night with its American debut, and appears later this evening in its regular slot. Martin Scorsese – who also directs the pilot – and Mick Jagger are among the exec producers of this drama, set in the music industry of the 1970s. It’s had reasonable reviews in America, but it looks a little bit TV-for-boys to me. Still, I’m listening if anyone wants to tell me I’m missing out (tonight, Sky Atlantic, 9pm).

And finally, season 2 of Better Call Saul is available tomorrow on Netflix.