What is up with goofy premises that TV creators take too seriously? Even “LOST” realized its ridiculousness with characters like Charlie and Locke designed to comment on its extremities. And yet shows this year like “Blindspot” and tonight’s premiere of “Limitless” on CBS don’t realize that they should be, first and foremost, escapism. This is not “The Good Wife.” Have some fun with it, people. And that’s the problem with “Limitless,” the adaptation of the Bradley Cooper film that I liked more than most people and less than a lot—it’s just not fun.
Part of the problem is the casting of Jake McDorman in the lead role of Brian Finch. He’s unconvincing as the latest recipient of the mysterious drug NZT, the magic pill that pulled a “Flowers For Algernon” on the man who would be an “American Sniper” in the movie of the same name, amplifying his intelligence and physical powers to superhero levels. In essence, that’s what “Limitless” is: another superhero show. You can almost picture the executives sitting around trying to find superheroes who had not yet been adapted to television and one of them stumbling upon “Limitless” late at night on cable TV. Sadly, what was a story of the endless possibility of human ability has now become a police procedural. Yes, like FOX’s “Minority Report,” the very premise of “Limitless” has essentially been gutted to make a show that feels like it will have more in common with “Bones” than the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
Back to McDorman. The lackluster star plays Brian, a man who has struggled to find his place in life, and who becomes one of the special people when he’s given NZT. Just as he’s about to need more, his dealer is killed, and our new super-genius becomes part of a grand conspiracy. At the same time, he crosses paths with Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter of “Dexter”) and her boss SAC Naz Pouran (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), who will all use this variation on the 2014 film “Lucy,” about a character who can access 100% of her brainpower, to solve crimes. Once Harris figures out that McDorman can serve a purpose in the fight against crime, the two will solve complex cases. Cooper will guest star every now and then, clearly fulfilling some fine print obligation in his film contract.
“Limitless” is a hard show to judge in that it’s difficult to convey a nonplussed shrug in review form. The show is not horrible. Its production values are tight, and I’ve always liked Carpenter and Mastrantonio. It’s just not fun enough to be memorable. Honestly, I almost forgot it was on the schedule. And that’s a major problem in today’s era of “Peak TV” in which people are struggling to clear their DVRs of shows they actually want to stay caught up on. Could “Limitless” end up a weekly diversion for the right audience? Never rule anything out on CBS, a network that seems capable of turning nearly anything into a modest hit. And it fits with their audience expectations of escapist mysteries with a twist like “Person of Interest” and “Elementary." Still, the ceiling—both creatively and commercially—for a show with a pilot as mediocre as this one seems, sorry to say, limited.