Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Pilot watch: CBS's LIMITLESS

Tuesday, 22 September 2015


What's the premise? Do you remember Neil Burger's 2011 thriller Limitless, which starred Bradley Cooper as a struggling author who takes a 'smart drug' called NZT-49 that gives him amazing mental agility and total recall? This is set in that movie's world, only now our hero's Brian Finch; a struggling musician who pops NZT and uses his augmented IQ to help the FBI find the killer of his supplier.

Who's in it? Brian's played by Jack McDorman (Greek, Shameless) and his FBI liaison Rebecca Harris is none other than Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter (keeping her famous potty-mouth zipped for sensitive CBS ears). Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio co-stars, but the big surprise is they got Bradley Cooper to return in a potentially recurring reprise of his film character. Well, it helps that he's also an executive producer on the series.

What are your first impressions? While it isn't tear-your-hair-out awful, the CBS version of Limitless still underwhelmed me. I certainly won't be watching another episode, sorry, because it gave me no compelling reason to care about anything or anyone.

While we've spent the past decade bowing at the altar of U.S TV, it's worth remembering that the shows most overseas markets adore don't come from mainstream networks CBS, ABC, NBC, or FOX. No, the drama most people obsess over are on the cable networks or video-on-demand (Game of Thrones, Mad Men, The Walking Dead, House of Cards, True Detective, etc). The freedom and experimentation happening there is helped by shorter runs and less reliance on advertising revenue. The majority of shows on America's traditional networks aren't actually anything special (we only buy the occasional breakout of good quality, like The Good Wife), and you tend to find their pilots are pseudo-remakes of old hits and flops, or adaptations of things with brand recognition.

Limitless proves there isn't a single idea TV writers can't bend into yet anther tedious weekly procedural involving a duo of sleuths. I understand why that setup lends itself to crafting 100 hours of TV, but I have no interest in iterations of shows with male-female crime-fighters, where one of them is either a genius or superhuman. I can't even begin to review this episode's content specifically, because it's exactly what you're expecting to see beforehand. It's just the film's setup, retold, but hung around the skeleton of another cop show with murders to solve.

We already have Fox's Minority Report TV series committing a gross sin against originality this autumn, but now CBS have harvested a movie for its best ideas/visuals and spewed out Yet Another Cop Show. One essentially the same as Intelligence; CBS's own drama about a man with mental access to the internet, which they cancelled only last season!

Someone really wants to make a show about an ordinary man whose brain's been given an extraordinary upgrade, don't they? You keep remaking that good idea every year, one time it's going to work with audiences... probably thanks to a quirk of casting, or finding a creator who manages to bring a different feel to things. This show isn't that.

Limitless is unlikely to fare any differently to its failed predecessors, despite the unusual fact it's a direct sequel to the film it's based on, and could find ways to bring Oscar-nominee Bradley Cooper back to reprise his character of Eddie Morra (now a Senator poised to become President of the USA, who owes his political success to NZT).

Directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man films), the Limitless premiere has moments of flashiness and visual fun, but nothing to rival the original film's woozy playfulness whenever Cooper knocked back a pill. It mimics Burger's film adequately (especially with the music score), but I couldn't get over how predictable its plot was and how tiresomely it set itself up as a weekly cop show.

The television marketplace is so crowded that only originality can cut through the noise, and there's not a single idea or character we haven't seen a hundred times before in Limitless. That said, the CBS audience probably don't care about originality and that's exactly why the network keeps selling them the same old crap.

What's the prognosis? CBS viewers love formulaic crime procedurals, but it's hard to say why Limitless could succeed where other versions of the 'super-brain genius' have failed recently—unless I've vastly underestimated the appeal of Bradley Cooper occasionally appearing, whenever he's asked to earn that producer pay cheque.

When does it premiere? Tonight on CBS. No UK broadcaster has picked this drama up yet, but a channel will probably buy it the same month CBS announce it's being axed. That usually happens.