The problem with CBS’ latest procedural venture, Limitless, is that its setup feels like familiar territory, even if you haven’t seen the movie. The life of classic ne’er-do-well Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) gets a boost when an old friend floats him a tablet of NZT, which enables him to access all of his brain, not the mere 10 percent or so the rest of us humans use. The result is like an ungodly mix of Sherlock and The Mentalist, with some star quality provided by the lead of the 2011 movie, Bradley Cooper, for good measure.
To the show’s credit, it shows some inspired camera-work and editing even before the drug kicks in; the first two episodes are helmed by Marc Webb, who directed (500) Days Of Summer and The Amazing Spider-Man 2. Craig Sweeny, no stranger to the quirky procedural due to his work on Elementary and Medium, wrote the pilot and is one of the executive producers. Summer fans will probably like the scene that’s a montage of years of Brian’s family dinners, with differences only indicated by a multitude of changes in clothing. And of course Brian’s first day on the drug is a gas, highlighted by epic guitar solos, simultaneous chess matches, and, most effectively, a sitdown where he tells the HR manager who hired him as a temp everything she needs to get ahead, as she slowly nods knowingly.
Unfortunately, we’ve seen this magnetic know-it-all guy before, quite recently and on the same network: The Mentalist’s Patrick Jane used intuition and knowledge of human behavior where Limitless uses the drug, but the result is the same: to crack these tough cases. Even the denouement of the pilots are similar, as the FBI decides to hire a recent likable fugitive as a “consultant.” McDorman is appealing enough, but suffers when compared to the recent charms of Simon Baker.
Brian Finch also pulls up short against another detective, who uses a similar charts-and-graphics display to indicate his thought process: Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock. The drug cheapens our enjoyment of how Brian figures everything out: Sherlock actually studied all of this. Brian just popped a pill that makes it easy for him to say lines like, “The dumbest stunt you ever pulled might turn out to be the smartest moment of your life.”
The potential problem of having a lead dependent on a designer drug is solved in the pilot by the reappearance of Bradley Cooper, still playing Eddie Morra, like he did in the movie. Eddie has now parlayed his knowledge into a dependency antidote and a job as a U.S. senator. So Eddie sets Brian up in a similar NZT status, for reasons that will no doubt become clear over the course of a season.
If the show lasts a full season. Cooper will appear in quite a few episodes, hoping to add some of that movie-star polish to the small screen, and his smirky self is always welcome. So are TV vets Ron Rifkin and and Blair Brown, effectively cast as Brian’s dumbfounded parents. Less successful are Jennifer Carpenter as Brian’s FBI contact (just like Robin Tunney in The Mentalist) and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio as the hard-as-nails bureau chief (any FBI procedural, anywhere). Carpenter in particular seems flummoxed that she is again following some strange guy around, so soon after she did so on CBS/Showtime’s Dexter. And her character’s interest in Brian is based on the flimsiest of premises: Due to a similar gleam in their eyes, she is assuming that her father was on the same drug as Brian when he died. Cue the disbelieving FBI co-workers, who will no doubt receive their comeuppance in short order, to kick off in next week’s episode: “Badge! Gun!”
Mentalist and Sherlock fans looking to fill their procedural need may find some delights here, and the show’s editing and direction help kick series this up a notch. Future episodes should show us how well the series is able to put Brian’s NZT talents to use. But its similarity to other source material puts Limitless at a disadvantage, as the viewer may occasionally just wish they were watching these other, better shows.