Yesterday at Comic-Con, we got a chance to see the pilot episode of Limitless, which airs on CBS September 22. It was prefaced by a (pre-taped) intro by executive producer Bradley Cooper, who starred in the 2011 movie and will occasionally co-star here. And holy crap, is this one hell of a show!
Our spoiler-free first impressions follow!
First, you have to know that Limitless’ other executive producers include The Amazing Spider-Man’s Marc Webb (who also directed) and Alias’ Alex Kurtzman—in other words, the show has all kinds of action-movie veterans working behind the scenes. And unsurprisingly, it feels like an action movie. The first scene is a heart-pounding chase through the NYC subway that ends with main character Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) almost getting flattened by a train as an FBI agent named Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter) gawks in amazement.
And while it’s based on the film—and takes place within the same universe as the film, with a story that includes Cooper’s movie character, Eddie Mora—it follows a brand-new storyline. Brian is an affable slacker whose musical career ambitions peaked with a mildly successful bar band that broke up when its various members peeled off to start grown-up jobs. But Brian has a hard time giving up the dream, even though he’s currently in a long creative rut. The passage of time, and the sense that everyone is advancing around him while he flails in place, is conveyed via a nifty montage of family dinners. Brian may not have much direction in life, but he does have a supportive home base. When his dad gets sick from a mysterious ailment, he panics, realizing (in one of the show’s many voice-overs, a device that’ll presumably be less prevalent once the story really gets going) that if that if his dad dies, he’ll have seen his son accomplish, uh, nada.
So he takes a temp job on Wall Street, a stultifyingly dull filing gig that’s supposed to last two weeks. Lo and behold, an ex-bandmate he hasn’t seen in awhile works at the firm, and passes his exhausted buddy a “jump start” in the form of NZT, the wonder drug that offers its user “access to every single brain cell.” What this means for Brian is depicted via short-burst animations showing the pathways of the brain zinging to life; he’s processing so much information that a second Brian appears in his mind’s eye to help him walk through the incredible awareness he now possesses. The tones of the show’s world also change, from bleak to golden, to emphasize to the viewer that we’re now essentially dealing with a completely new character.
At first, Brian has great fun with his enhanced abilities. (The show has a sly sense of humor, aided greatly by the casting of the affable McDorman.) We see him nail that two-week filing assignment in mere hours, which was inevitable (he memorizes every file on everyone who works at the company, which comes in handy later). He also becomes a world-class guitar shredder; chess whiz; artisanal hot dog expert (look for the show’s writer, Craig Sweeny, in a cameo as a food-cart vendor); medical detective; lockpicker; train dodger; and more.
Naturally, there are drawbacks to all this wonderment. One is that NZT is a completely off-market drug, with a supply so limited that its addicts (and Brian quickly becomes one, with gnarly withdrawal symptoms and everything) tend to use violence when they need more product. So Brian’s previously unremarkable life is now in danger for a multitude of reasons. He also becomes a target for the FBI, who are well aware of NZT’s destructive capabilities, when his ex-bandmate supplier turns up dead.
But he’s not alone in the craziness. He meets Rebecca, the FBI agent who refrains from shooting him on the subway platform in the show’s opening scene. Though initially suspicious, she agrees to help him clear his name if he’ll help her solve cases (suggesting the show will become a procedural, albeit a highly original one). He also finds an ally and supplier in Eddie Mora (Cooper, in all his movie-star glory), though Mora’s end game—why would this powerful man take li’l ol’ Brian under his wing?—remain murky thus far. Between these opposing forces vying for Brian’s loyalties, his own up-and-down reactions to NZT’s effects, and the show’s fast pace and clever writing, there’s a lot to propel this show throughout the season. We can’t wait to see where Limitless goes next.
McDorman elaborated more on the show’s premise at a Comic-Con press event:
One of the things Marc Webb and Craig Sweeny and I talked about before shooting is that you have all these characters who are addicted to substances. It’s a bizarre line to walk. It’s almost like a performance-enhancing drug, where there are serious consequences, like any drug. And it’s strange to have your hero be a hero when he’s addicted. So I think it just leaves a lot of places for the show to go. What are Eddie’s intentions, because he’s been on it so long? It has to mutate your morality, eventually. What does it do?
Of his approach to playing Brian, he added,:
You can’t just all of a sudden become this un-relatable brainiac that goes off and solves cases. There’s a level of humor in the whole thing. My favorite part is that montage when he takes the drug [for the first time], it’s this wish-fulfillment, joyful kind of thing. When I got the script, I didn’t have much time after I was cast before we started shooting, I read through and was like, ‘Let’s find all the places where it would make sense to interject joy,’ or some sort of humorous side of it, that I think it essential for who Brian is.
Because you don’t want to lose sight of the fact that if everybody had the opportunity to take this pill, it would be so fun! I mean, before the side effects, or before you get framed for murder, or something—it’s gotta be a blast. You’re all of a sudden great at anything you put your mind to. Marc said at one point, everybody’s had that sensation of being at a bar, like two drinks in, where you’re firing on all cylinders, telling stories, going ‘This is great!’ It’s like that, amplified, for 12 hours. It’s one of the things that made playing the role so attractive.