Every crime procedural is built around a story-engine—in order for there to be “cases of the week,” there needs to be some type of structure in place that will successfully generate cases with that level of frequency.
When Craig Sweeny went about turning Limitless into a television show (a process he chatted about with The A.V. Club last week), he included what on the surface reads as a pretty standard story engine: after coming in contact with the brain-stimulating NZT, Brian Finch was strategically positioned at the FBI by the film’s protagonist. While the “magic pill” might give Brian his “abilities,” it’s the FBI that gives Limitless its structure.
However, it’s a very loose structure. The FBI office Brian works at is known as the Cross Jurisdictional Command (almost exclusively referred to just as the CJC)—it’s a fictional entity, but that gives the show license to make it whatever they want it to be. They’ve never actually explained the CJC’s parameters, at least as far as I remember, but the name captures the openness of the concept: they have the ability to move across jurisdictions, effectively meaning that the types of crimes they could investigate is—wait for it—limitless.
In its preceding fourteen episodes, the most impressive thing about Limitless is how much it’s given the impression it has only scratched the surface of what it could do with this story engine. The show’s versatility is definitely a byproduct of its playful style, but it’s also that the CJC itself is able to adapt alongside these shifts in perspective or story structure: rather than seeing various different stylistic treatments on the same murder or serial killing or sex crime, Limitless can shake up its structure just as much as it can shake up the stylistic flair around it.
“Undercover!”—a spiritual sequel to “Headquarters!”, at least in title—reinforces just how distinctive Limitless feels within its genre. Even if we ignore the episode’s framing device—a series of after-incident investigation interviews that gradually reveal the events of Brian’s time undercover(!)—the episode consciously undercuts traditional forms of conflict. The episode begins with a crime, yes—a list of undercover agents is stolen, requiring that Brian locate the five agents unaccounted for in the early morning hours following the theft. But whereas you could create a version of this episode where Brian races against the clock to keep the agents safe, that isn’t where the show is headed here. The first four agents are all “uncovered” in a fun montage where they’re represented by different styles of movie posters, and when Brian gets to the fifth something unexpected happens: instead of being in danger, she flirts with him, invites him to join her undercover, and decides to use him to help clean up some necessary loose ends before wrapping up her investigation.
It transforms what first appears to be an inciting conflict into a call to adventure, something that is only possible because of the show’s lighter tone and its ability to breeze through elements of procedure that other shows would be bogged down in. It’s a cheat, to be clear—NZT is a magic shortcut, and the stylistic bridges (they’ve used the map visual a number of times now) are a quick way to move from Point A to Point B. But as long as Point A represents something typical, and Point B is the type of story that you don’t typically see in a procedural, those shortcuts are themselves part of Limitless’ appeal.
“Undercover!” has lots of Limitless’ now-trademark charm, whether in Irina’s love of reality television, techie James’ windburn, or Boyle’s speculation about/Brian’s delivery of the mental exclamation mark on the idea of going undercover(!). While I don’t necessarily know if the show laid the proper foundation for the “Sex as Bollywood Dance Number” fantasy, the show is better in general for its disinterest in stressing over whether or not every flight of fancy is fully supported by internal logics. It’s resulted in some impressive world-building, such that previous throwaways—like Brian’s sticky note architecture—can be called back to, and the more the show embraces its excesses the more they coalesce into a complete world. Just look at the way Brian casually throws in a mention of his friends at Everywhere—the show’s parallel, brought up in a previous episode—to gloss over some of that off-screen procedure the show never likes to deal with.
But where “Undercover!” shines is in the way it equally serves as a reflection on the end of last week’s episode, where Brian learned that the evidence clerk he spoke with when replacing Senator Morra’s jacket had been killed. For all of Limitless’ playful charm, its greatest accomplishment is that its ongoing serial storyline remains so menacing. While Brian is never necessarily in mortal danger, he begins the episode in serious moral danger, feeling responsible for the clerk’s death and confronting Sands about it. And so his decision to jump into a car with Lucy is not just Brian being impulsive and wanting to put an exclamation mark on his day (as Boyle reads it); he’s also trying to escape his guilt, and ends up in a situation where he actually has someone he can talk to. Lucy isn’t Rebecca, and so he’s able to at least vaguely allude to his situation, and he gets some good advice in the process: unless you’re the one who ordered someone dead or pulled the trigger, the result was out of your hands.
It’s similar to what drives Lucy, who Christina Vidal brings to life in ways that hide how she’s pretty blatantly designed to pull out elements of Brian’s story. There’s the way she’s given up her life to stay undercover, in direct opposition to the way Brian has resisted NZT turning him into someone he’s not; the episode even places the moral question of responsibility in her hands, as she holds a gun to a suspect and ponders pulling the trigger herself instead of letting justice run its course. It’s hard—even with some expositional interviews from the framing mechanism—for a new character to feel fully fleshed out in a single episode, but Lucy works because her motivations are simple. She has given up her life to go undercover, and while she wants to stay in the field in part to finish her case and ensure the safety of the sex trafficking victims, she’s also concerned about being forced back to “herself.” It’s an identity crisis that fits the show well, and Vidal and McDorman’s easy chemistry demonstrates the capacity for this type of “romantic caper” to enter into the show’s repertoire.
Brian’s separation from the CJC—who serve as the inciting agent here and then move into a supporting role—could have meant this was a thin episode for the rest of the cast, and Naz and Boyle are indeed reduced to quick if fun interview bits. However, this actually ends up a pretty substantial episode for Rebecca and Sands. We don’t necessarily learn much new about Rebecca, but the episode allows her to take on a more active role in her investigation of Morra, and her confrontations with Sands allow us to understand her motivations independent of how they affect Brian. In addition, the show consciously reaffirms her father’s connection to NZT, reminding us that this is her mythology as much as Brian’s, a fact that has at times slipped from view in the big picture as the season had progressed.
Yet despite Rebecca’s prominence, these scenes said more about Sands. In his first scene with Brian, Sands seems incredulous at the idea that Brian would feel guilty: why would he bother his conscience when all he did was do his job, and it was Sands who made the decision to remove this potential obstacle? Why wouldn’t Brian be glad that he wasn’t being arrested, and that everything “they” are working for remains intact? It’s a perspective that makes sense for a villain generally, but it specifically makes sense with who we later learn Sands is: a former MI-6 agent who Morra bought out like he tries to buy out Rebecca, selling out his conscience in favor of a paycheck. Bringing Sands’ past to the surface gives him a history, functioning less as a stand-in for Morra in episodes where Bradley Cooper isn’t available and more as a specific agent who works for Morra, yes, but has his own motivations.
The way “Undercover!” works to frame this as a comic romp—the formalwear montage, the cheeky “A Romantic Caper in Three Assignments” subtitle, the cut to Irina that closes out the episode—might make it seem slight, and this is not an episode heavily invested in forcing dramatic change in either the characters or the ongoing storyline. However, crime procedurals are about maintenance, designing stories that service numerous different elements—Brian’s guilt, Rebecca’s determination, Sands’ past—without sacrificing the episodic, internal momentum that closed-ended investigations offer. And what “Undercover!” reinforces above all is that Limitless’ versatility makes it particularly adept at maintenance, free to design stories that flout the stodginess of the genre without abandoning the security a structure—albeit a very loose one—offers on a week-to-week basis.
- This is only the third time that McDorman has reasonably been positioned as a romantic lead—Brian’s ex-girlfriend and Naz’s daughter being the other two—but it’s a mode that he handles really well. Whether or not the show is interested in trying to play out the Rebecca/Brian dynamic into a romantic one remains an open question, but the choice to have Rebecca comment on how he looked in his suit suggests the door is at least open.
- Notable that the climax of the episode takes place when Brian is not on NZT, meaning he talked down Lucy while “himself.” The question of who Brian is on NZT is an important one, and while Lucy maybe states the idea too plainly in her goodbye, I do think the show has done a nice job of letting his morals and personality be consistent regardless of whether or not he’s had his pill.
- I agree, Irina—“I’m not here to make friends” is and always will be nonsense. I don’t know if Irina could reasonably recur, but I’m crossing my fingers she goes back to Russia, starts a YouTube channel reviewing American reality TV, and we have reason to revisit her sharp observations on an important genre.
- While Brian’s temp job takes us back to the pilot, his time at the hedge fund party brings us back to the movie, where Eddie Morra used NZT to play the stock market and generate his fortunate. Here, Brian navigates the same community, but with a very different motivation, furthering the contrast between the two protagonists.
- It remains so impressive to me that I can still take Colin Salmon seriously after his guest turn on Master of None, but here we are.
- There are lots of markers to indicate that showrunner Sweeny came to Limitless from Elementary—we talked about a few in last week’s Expert Witness—but we see another here as Brian casually uses Everywhere in the same way Sherlock uses Everyone; the only different is that Everywhere doesn’t demand some form of humiliation as payment, at least not as far as we’ve seen.
- I have a slight bone to pick from an aesthetic perspective. The “interviews” worked fine as a framing device, even if they removed some of the tension over how the case would turn out (not that I doubted it would turn out well, necessarily, but the tone removed any question), but I don’t know how I feel about the camera choices. They switch between two angles—the diegetic video camera one I get (even if the quality seems unrealistically bad for 2015), but the main camera angle on the interviews makes no sense. It’s effective a point-of-view angle from the unseen interviewer, but it zooms in and out almost documentary style, which seems to lack any similar diegetic motivation. Moreover, the show also used a weird angle in Brian’s conversation with Sergei that was ALMOST a point-of-view shot, but wasn’t quite, and seemed too similar to the interview aesthetic and confused things further. The testimonials were often fun, but I—and probably only I—was a bit distracted with the style used.
- This is a trial balloon for future coverage of the show—I’m not entirely sure I’m able to reasonable continue on writing about it myself, although admittedly I had a lot of fun breaking down the structural dynamics of the show, so I could be convinced. But it really depends on you engaging with the review, through reading, commenting, sharing, etc. I say this less out of desperation and more out of an interest in seeing the type of intelligent conversation that site can create emerging around a show that’s committed to doing something new.