What if you took a drug that gave you instant photographic recall of every memory you’d ever had? What might you accomplish with that power? The 2011 film Limitless saw its pill-popping hero use brain-enhancing drugs to make money, cavort with women, and run for political office. Meanwhile, the protagonist of the new TV show Limitless, a quasi-sequel to the film, gets his hands on the drug and uses it to solve some fairly boring mysteries. With this new series, CBS seems to have squandered the potential of a weird, compelling premise by cramming it into an average procedural crime-show mold.
Like many CBS dramas, Limitless is made with aggressive competence. There’s a cinematic sheen borrowed from Neil Burger’s film, which starred Bradley Cooper and was enough of an unexpected hit to spawn this spinoff. There’s a brief cameo from Cooper himself as now-Senator Eddie Morra, who gives his blessing to his successor Brian, a struggling musician played by Jake McDorman who starts popping the magic pill NZT and draws the attention of the FBI. But there’s a depressing lack of originality to Limitless, which quickly positions itself as a dull cop show despite its wackier sci-fi origins.
As one might discern from the title, there are many directions Limitless could take to explore the powers NZT bestows and their consequences. Aside from granting complete memory recall, the drug’s powers are vaguely defined and can seemingly offer whatever the taker desires (in the film, it ranges from literary success to political acumen). But Brian takes about as narrow an approach as possible. At one point, he uses his new powers to pick a lock; as the show’s self-serious narration tells us, he learned that skill by watching a random YouTube video years ago, and NZT finally granted him the power to deploy it.
At another point, Brian manages to identify the rare genetic disease his father (Ron Rifkin) has by sorting through his own family tree like a walking Ancestry.com. That’s the incredible power of NZT, according to CBS’s Limitless: You can instantly tap into the power of any major website in your day-to-day life, no subscription required. By the time Brian uses his powers to predict just how long it would take a subway train to brake without hitting him if he jumped on the tracks, you’ll be begging for him to lose his bottle of medicine.
Limitless also misses the opportunity to set up some kind of interesting conflict surrounding Brian’s drug use. In the film, Eddie takes the pills but has to deal with side effects like massive memory loss. For the show, there’s no apparent downside: Any issues have been breezily worked out so Brian can be a more effective crime-fighter for the Feds. Once he gets hooked on the pills, he’s noticed by the government as a good detective, and partners up with Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter, best known as Dexter’s sister). There are only brief references made to the depths of the NZT conspiracy: figuring out who made it, and why Brian resists its side effects.
But this is a CBS procedural, and viewers can rest assured that mystery will simmer on the back-burner for as long as possible. As other networks scrabble to find the right balance of big-name stars and live-TV events to keep viewers tuning in, CBS isn’t wavering from its successful programming model one bit. Almost all of its dramas see lawyers or cops solving cases, and next to none prioritize long-term storytelling over syndication-friendly crimes of the week. This format usually requires no originality; it speaks volumes that the closest comparison to Limitless is the former CBS hit The Mentalist, which was about a fraudulent psychic who was able to figure out people’s backstories and tell if they’re lying by reading their speech and facial tics.
Even the brief appearance of Cooper on the show doesn’t help much. 2011’s Limitless was far from a perfect film, but it was the first indicator that Cooper could carry a sub-par script on the back of his growing star power. When he drops into the show, sporting the same electric-blue irises he had in the movie (another NZT side effect), you want the plot to follow him on whatever dangerous new mission he’s embarking on, be it a presidential campaign or the creation of a secret society (he hints vaguely at both). Cooper is there to lend the series legitimacy, but in the end he only highlights what it’s so sorely lacking: a protagonist, and overarching plot, for the audience to care about.