Confession: The 2011 film Limitless, starring Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro, is one of my favorite films of the last 5 years. In fact, I became a little obsessed with it to the point that I bought the script to see how it differed from the finished film.
Needless to say, when a TV show with the same title was announced, I was looking forward to it. When I heard that Bradley Cooper and Robert DeNiro were executive producing, I was pretty excited.
The show premiered last month and, so far, it’s been an enjoyable diversion. The producers have maintained a lot of the visual language of the film and even added some elements that seem to fit right in. But there is also a problem or maybe, I should say, a central contradiction lurking at the core of the show.
For those who never saw the film, it’s an adult fantasy with a simple science fiction premise. A smart but unaccomplished man named Eddie Morra (played by Bradley Cooper) wants to be a novelist, but he hasn’t managed to write anything yet. His personal life is a mess. He dresses like a bum, lives in a messy apartment, and at the beginning of the movie, is dumped by his attractive, successful girlfriend who is tired of watching his life circle the drain.
And then he encounters NZT.
NZT is a miracle IQ enhancement drug with a shady past. When taken, it gives Morra a massive IQ. He can literally recall everything he has ever seen, and not only recall it, but understand it and see how it connects to other things he knows. The results are instant and dramatic. Morra cleans himself up, writes chapters of his novel which amaze his editor, and then turns his attention to the stock market.
There are many twists and turns, but within a few months’ time, Eddie Morra is working on one of the biggest corporate mergers in history. At the end of the film, Morra has a best-selling novel and he’s running for the Senate. His debate performance is so dominant that people are already talking about a future run for president. And that’s where the film ends. Eddie Morra has gone from loser to cultural and financial success. Thanks to NZT, he seems headed for actual world domination.
So how do you turn Limitless into a TV show? Well, if you’re CBS, home of multiple flavors of CSI, NCIS, Elementary and many other successful police procedural shows, you turn it into another police procedural show.
The TV version of Limitless starts with Brian Finch. Like Eddie Morra, Finch is a would be artist whose band never went anywhere. Now he’s coasting through life and seems to have no prospects and no future. And just like Eddie Morra, Finch bumps into someone who gives him a single NZT pill and his life begins to change.
In fact, the first half of the pilot episode of Limitless is really a remake of the film, with some of the exact same plot twists. That’s all right since not everyone has seen the movie, but the comparison it creates leads to the big problem with the structure of the show. Why does a guy who just realized he could do anything agree to sit in an office and solve crimes?
The show solves this problem by putting the FBI in control of the pills. Finch has two FBI handlers who arrive at his apartment every day to give him one pill which lasts about 12 hours. Because he has no other access to NZT, he’s stuck doing what he’s told.
And therein lies the problem. Police procedurals, like any mystery show or book, are inherently conservative. They are about restoring order and bringing things back to the way they should be. That’s why they work so well as TV shows, because you can have the same characters solve crime after crime while barely changing themselves.
But that’s not what Limitless is. Limitless is almost the polar opposite of that. It’s about explosive change. Things don’t return to normal for Eddie Morra, he exceeds normal at ever turn. He doesn’t do any one thing for long before moving on to something bigger and better. That’s the fantasy element of the film: People on NZT make news. They become famous. And that path sets up certain expectations for Brian Finch and for the show.
And so, by the second episode, Brian Finch is literally breaking through walls at the FBI offices in order to escape his mandated captivity there. It’s really a perfect metaphor for the contradiction at the core of the show. People with huge IQs who can do anything don’t sit around waiting to be told what to do by bureaucrats. By episode three, the most recent to air, Finch is still stuck in the office part of the time, but he’s allowed out a bit more. It feels a little slow, to be honest, a bit limited.
For the TV show to remain congruent with the movie, it needs to provide the same sense of leaping over the barriers most of us mere mortals contend with. And that can’t just be in the form of asides and B-stories. Brian Finch can’t sit around week after week solving crimes as a minor functionary for the FBI and also amazing people everywhere he goes. This can’t be a show about someone amazing rising to the middle of a bureaucracy. Frankly, that’s not very exciting.
The only alternative that makes sense is for the writers to go a little crazy and rebel against the format. As just one example, if Brian Finch isn’t running the FBI by the end of season 1, something is wrong with his NZT supply. And, frankly, why would he settle for that? Why hasn’t he reunited the Wrecking Crew (a group of famous LA studio musicians) and recorded a top 10 hit song yet? Why hasn’t he dashed off a lead sheet and sent it to Brian Wilson or, I don’t know, Ed Sheeran. Wasn’t that his lifelong dream? At what point does Simon Cowell show up at the FBI begging to sign him to a record deal? Seriously, Finch should be on a world tour with someone by the time summer hiatus rolls around or his NZT isn’t working right.
Happily, there are early signs that the producers and writers get it. They’ve already done some pretty surprising and fun things (a spontaneous performance of flight of the bumblebee on electric guitar, a talking fetus). They’ve also brought in Bradley Cooper playing the slightly scary Senator Eddie Morra (and here’s hoping Robert DeNiro makes a cameo or three). And while Finch still seems trapped in a box at the FBI, Morra is wondering whether aging is inevitable. That’s the real Limitless right there, and that’s what I hope the show never gives up on becoming.
Limitless has been a fun ride so far. Here’s hoping the writers and producers can break through the walls of the weekly police procedural format CBS seems to have trapped them in. With enough NZT, anything is possible.
Limitless airs Tuesday nights at 10pm on CBS. If you missed an episode, you can catch up here.