tv review

Limitless Is a Fine-Enough Show With Seemingly Limited Ambition

I miss Greek. Photo: Jeff Neumann/CBS Broadcasting, Inc. All Rights Reserved

A depressed, rich white man who is a wannabe musician discovers that taking drugs is a lot of fun (until it’s not). He steals and burgles, he declines to report murders, and he evades police capture with the power of his mind, and also the power of drugs. He tells a sad lady that she deserves better. He noodles around on guitar, as if anyone gives a shit. He tells another sad lady that he’s not like her alcoholic dad (isn’t he, though?). He basks in not being an investment banker like his sellout friend. Bradley Cooper arrives to tell him what’s what. Our hero Brian (Jake McDorman) has that CBS-hunk thing down, and there’s plenty of running and chasing. It all works just fine. It’s better than CSI: Cyber. Is that enough?

Maybe it is. Limitless at least seems to have a sliver of a sense of humor, and its voice-over works better than other shows’. The series is a sequel of sorts to the 2011 movie, though it’s perfectly digestible even if one has not seen the film. There’s a drug called NZT that makes you incredibly smart, able to recall every piece of information you’ve ever heard or read — and it’s great, except for the withdrawal and the possibly damaging side-effects. Brian takes a dose to help get his creative juices flowing, and the next thing you know, he’s running through the subway, trying not to be captured by the FBI.

He falls short of that goal, though, and eventually teams up with the FBI, particularly with Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter). She wants to recruit him, at one point explaining to her skeptical boss, “Every time he takes it, he basically becomes the smartest person in the world … Brian has the potential to be more effective than every agent in this division combined.” God forbid we turn this megamind toward eradicating poverty or seeking out tremendous medical advances.

Limitless is a cop show masquerading as psychological thriller. Or maybe it’s Ritalin propaganda masquerading as a cop show masquerading as a psychological thriller. But it’s a lot of setup for a show that’s going to be a cop procedural anyway. CBS already has Person of Interest. And Elementary. “Smart people solve crimes” is also the basis of Scorpion. “More-or-less-regular people solve crimes” is the basis for CSI, NCIS, Criminal Minds, NCIS: Los Angeles, Hawaii Five-O, Blue Bloods, NCIS: New Orleans, and CSI: Cyber. They don’t solve crimes on The Good Wife, but sometimes they kind of do. There is occasional crime-solving on Madam Secretary. So does CBS really need another cop show? Does America?

How special would a new cop show have to be to meet that “is this worth it” standard? Pretty special, at this point. And even though its pilot is zippy and action-oriented, everything here feels like a very competent retread. The NZT angle feels a lot like the “his brain is a computer!” angle from Intelligence, which itself felt a lot like the “he is the intercept!” from Chuck, which itself is a patchwork homage to other cop and spy stories. The blueprints whizzing by as a representation of just how fast Brian’s mind is working — that’s not inventive either. An FBI agent with a bad dad, you say? Now I’ve heard it all.

Limitless is the quintessential fall 2015 show, in that it’s totally functional but also totally unspecial. I understand why networks want to make shows they think people will like. I just wish the made more shows they think people will love. I’m sure people will watch Limitless, but there’s a limit to how much they’ll be able to love something so ordinary.

Limitless’s Limited Scope