Lamenting Limitless

Sit back, relax, pop your NZT and let it wash over you...

We need to talk about Limitless. Not the 2011 film of the same name, but the CBS series. Now airing on Sky Living in the UK and available to buy on Amazon and iTunes, this series offered a fresh take on the “Police procedural” genre. Bringing together a captivating cast, this Craig Sweeny-created show picked up where the film left off. Bradley Cooper reprises his role as Eddie Morra on a recurring basis, however, this show focusses on a new protagonist. Brian Finch, a struggling musician, finds himself in possession of a single dose of NZT-48, a pill which brings 100% brain power for twelve hours. However, life is never simple, and that is where the show really shines.

Conceptually, the show had an easy run in. The 2011 film was based on the novel The Dark Fields, by Alan Glynn. The show, in turn, followed on from that film. Picking up the story beats from a successful film is always a great way to start. With the rules of the game already laid out, the creator, Craig Sweeny, had to merely apply them to his ideas. The show, however, takes a very different direction to the film. Where the cinematic form had Cooper becoming intensely successful, the series turns focus instead to where this miracle drug can do better for the many. As an NZT-48 user with what appears to be no side-effects, Brian is quickly whisked into FBI service, under the watchful eye of FBI Special Agent in Charge Nasreen “Naz” Pouran and Special Agent Rebecca Harris. Their intention to turn Brian’s skills to the investigation of crime is a noble effort and is hampered only by the whole plethora of individuals who want to see them fail. In addition, Brian must hold down a difficult family life, and address all of the challenges of his own psyche in the process.

In addition to an imaginative concept, the show can pride itself on its extremely unique style. The production team are not afraid of using peculiar set dressing, strange locations and comparing them heavily to the mundanity of everyday life. Camerawork and editing are used to great effect, with techniques which would normally make a viewer squirm with discomfort are used to enhance the audience’s pleasure. Harsh cuts, strange angles and bizarre transitions all serve to draw the comparison between Brian on, and off NZT. However, one of the strongest techniques used is colour saturation. While it is seemingly obvious after-the-fact, these transitions from a more muted colour palette to a highly saturated environment improve the effect that this small pill can have. This skilful work draws the viewer in, and speaking from my own experience, can lead you to sit with a Cheshire Cat-like grin for no reason other than the curious spectacle before you.

However, all of the plot and technical expertise are nothing without a strong cast to deliver it all, and Limitless has it in spades. Jake McDorman leads the show as Brian Finch. Professional dropout, struggling musician, and someone who found themselves in the right (or wrong?) place at the right time. Simply put, McDorman is believable. His swagger, his look, his gait and his attitude all blend together seamlessly to make you genuinely believe that he is Brian Finch. I wouldn’t say that his performances were flawless, but all-in, he carries himself with strength and is a takeaway star of this show. Next up is Jennifer Carpenter as Rebecca Harris. Again, some great acting here. Carpenter can really distinguish the different sides of Rebecca, and as time goes on and the story is revealed, her previous performances gain more value. While I would love to wax lyrical about the whole cast, I simply do not have space. With a cast featuring Bradley Cooper reprising the role of Senator Eddie Morra, Ron Rifkin as Brian’s father, Hill Harper as Spelman Boyle and Georgina Haig as Piper Baird, it is difficult not to see the quality on show. Special mention, however, must go to Michael James Shaw and Tom Degnan as “Mike and Ike”. These FBI Agents are tasked with the protection and supervision of Brian, and although their performances are often wordless, often motionless and often completely at odds with their characters, their faces speak volumes. To begin, a comic device, these characters progress throughout the series and become so much more.

The show addresses so much within its short single season run. Themes of addiction are unsurprisingly present. A drug which can offer so much is extremely attractive, even to those who know the long-term effects. Similarly, having a dropout front and centre will only increase the discussions of alcohol abuse. Themes around family are ever-present too. Brian, torn between his family and his “secret” FBI life must often make choices which harm one, or both of the parties. His family, in particular, his father, are always in his mind, and while he can often make the correct decision according to the facts, he continually struggles with those based in emotions. Brian is not alone in this, with Rebecca and Boyle each having their own struggles around their familial bonds. Subservience and dependence are also key themes. Brian finds himself whisked into a position of power, while still remaining at the behest of other parties. This position of power-without-power is difficult to grasp and is expertly portrayed by the team at Limitless.

Unfortunately, Limitless did not get commissioned for a second season. While ratings and viewership started high, they tailed off during the final third of the season, and the show found itself continually straddling the “renew” and “cancel” sides of the fence. CBS could not place a second season with them, and their attempts to find a new home for the show were, unfortunately, fruitless. Jake McDorman has found a home in cinema, with two projects, Ideal Home and Lady Bird both in post-production. Similarly, Jennifer Carpenter successfully wrapped filming on S. Craig Zahler film Brawl in Cell Block 99. While creator Craig Sweeny has not yet moved on to anything officially, his vision and talent will be a welcome return to our screens.

Limitless offered something unique to television. Breaking the grind of police procedural shows, Limitless offered something else. Unfortunately, bridging the workaday procedural genre with the fantastical science fiction genre was all a little much for the public at large, and the show failed to be renewed. However, we were delivered a complex, detailed and finely written story, well performed and expertly produced. Limitless is something that everyone should try, I guarantee that there are some amazing experiences to be had, just swallow that little pill.

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