When it was first announced, many were quick to groan at the idea of a Limitless television series based on the 2011 film starring Bradley Cooper. Is nothing sacred in Hollywood anymore? Can anything exist as a simple one-off that succeeds and does nothing more than that? Of course not. However, what folks may not have expected was for the series to actually be good. How good? So good that Bradley Cooper deemed it worthy enough to grace it with his presence (something he had no financial incentive to do when he was already listed as an executive producer anyway).
Picking up four years after the events of the film that ended with Cooper’s Eddie Morra going all precog with a seemingly unnatural ability to predict the immediate future, Limitless the show sees the mysterious intelligence-enhancing drug NZT resurfacing on the streets of New York. Eventually, a pill winds up in the hands of defunct musician Brian Finch. After taking it, Brian finds new reason to get things done (and play a lot of chess in the park – though never for money because he’s better than that, apparently)… however, this drive puts him on a path to bad things town when he stumbles on his friend (and original NZT supplier) dead at his apartment just before the F.B.I. shows up.
Now, with the pilot episode come and gone, the next question is, can the show sustain past its premiere, and if so, how? What must Limitless the show do in order to remain the best new show of the broadcast television fall season (which it is)? Well, actually, about 7 things:
1) Make Brian Funny
Nothing’s worse than a boring hero (or anti-hero). However, not everyone can hang their hat on broad-strokes intrigue the way the likes of Walter White (who was also a rather humorous individual), Vic Mackey or Elliot Alderson can. Sometimes, a story’s hero needs a little more, and that little more in Limitless’ case is humor.
For us to want to continue with Brian on his journey, we need to like him, and one of the quickest and most efficient ways of making us reach that point is by making him likably funny: adorable, if you will; emotionally, if you prefer (actor Jake McDorman, of Greek fame, already has the physical adorableness down). In fact, we’re already seeing hints of this need for humor in the show’s existing slate of promos that feature the 29 year-old goofing around with his new F.B.I. buddies by making them “tag him in,” for example. If the show continues to go that way, then there’s a large chance we’ll want to continue going along with it… at least until CBS execs take an NZT pill for themselves and say, “Hey, what do you guys think about Limitless: New Orleans?”
2) Use the NZT in Ways That Affect Brian Later
While the NZT drug and its effects are cool, there’s an inherent problem with the abilities they give Brian. What happens if a moment comes where he’s suddenly cut off from his super-ability granting MacGuffin? Is he just supposed to be a hapless dumb-dumb with abilities no greater than those of Barry Allen pre-lightning strike? This is where the next requirement comes into play.
We, as audience members, should witness Brian’s ability to slowly begin comprehending the things he learns while on NZT after coming off it. There are hints of this in the pilot where he attempts to pick the lock of a second door (and fails) following an NZT come down after doing it the first time in a highly skilled manner while on the drug. What we should see more of is Brian learning from his super brain so that he can improve himself while under normal capacity. If he’s unable to retain anything he learns, then what good will he be later? You know, besides being a really lackluster guitarist.
3) Avoid a Will They/Won’t They Relationship With Brian and Rebecca
At the moment, Limitless is so far, so good on this front, but that doesn’t mean the urge to deviate won’t come up. As it stands, Brian and Rebecca are two individuals that are clearly going to make for an interesting pairing, but bringing them together romantically like an alien-less Mulder and Scully is the last thing the show should be looking to do, even when it seems possible toward the moment the series eventually reaches the magical syndication number of 88 episodes.
This isn’t to say the two shouldn’t start caring for one another. They should, but why does that have to couple with the idea of a romance? Men and women can be friends, and at the moment, the show is making no attempt to hint at a possibility of them ever getting together. This is how it should remain. Instead, Brian should be continuously, but accidentally, ruining Rebecca’s love life because his abilities make him see things in people she may not want to know – and vice versa for Rebecca and her access to people’s records through F.B.I. resources. They should want the best for each other until the time comes when they do indeed each find people that can work despite everything around them constantly going to hell in a pill-induced handbasket.
4) Have Brian Fail While on NZT
In the pilot, Brian is a pseudo-superhero while on NZT, able to use the drug’s effects in ways that make him always right. But that doesn’t mean he’s infallible – the only reason Brian’s always right in the pilot is because he’s always working with a complete picture. However, this is what should ultimately be his downfall in more than one episode.
NZT should be painted as a drug that gives its user tunnel vision. It should convince them they are right no matter what. For Brian to appear vulnerable, he must fail while on the drug because there are variables at play he’s unaware of – variables that would ultimately change his thinking. By doing this, by having him fail, we’ll realize NZT doesn’t make you perfect, it just gives you the ability to connect dots you know about – that it basically makes you the ultimate colorer of things inside the lines. By the drug having drawbacks like this, the show has dramatic weight. There’s nothing interesting about a thing that can make someone perfect, but a thing that can make someone almost perfect? Well, that’s a thing that’s worth watching for 5 years or more (and by more, we mean 11 years because nothing that successful on CBS ends anymore… unless you’re CSI:)
5) Keep The Show as Procedural as Possible Until Mid-Season
It’s understandable why people are always down on the idea of procedurals, but the truth is that building character successfully in the early stages of a serialized drama fails more times than it succeeds. The great thing about procedural storytelling is it allows audiences the ability to dive into the personalities of the characters without having to worry too heavily about story trajectory. If we know that the beginning and ending of an arc come within an episode’s runtime, then we can spend less time focused on twists, and more on getting to know the people living them.
This isn’t to say the show should never dive into heavy mytholog;, it’s just saying it shouldn’t rush into the idea. The great thing about attaching audiences to the personalities of your characters before anything else is that you can pretty much of whatever you want with them. Nothing seems outlandish or over the top because the characters are what the audience cares about, not the plot. Staying episodic until the last possible moment is really the only way we’re going to get to know Brian and his new friends before everything starts going off the rails and beyond (in good ways).
6) More Ron Rifkin
Every show has its secret weapon, but sometimes those weapons are less secret that others. For The Blacklist, it’s James Spader. For Teen Wolf, it’s Dylan O’Brien. For Limitless, it will be Ron Rifkin. A veteran actor who shares much history with executive producers Bradley Cooper, Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci (who originally served as stars and writers respectively on Alias where Rifkin played series baddie Arvin Sloane), the man will no doubt be the thing that propels Limitless in moments of perceived weakness over the course of its first season.
When you’re making 22 episodes of television a year, it’s hard to keep everything going at 100% capacity 100% of the time – even Lost had its share of slip-ups in the early days. Sometimes, you may dip. The key is mask those dips in scenes that still play, and this is where someone like Rifkin can really aid the series. He’s not necessary for the moments Brian walks in front of a moving train, but those moments like the one in the hospital where Brian has a pow-wow with his dad about working for the government, those are the moments Rifkin can shine as a father figure to not just Brian, but the entire series as a whole (and hey, at least he won’t be running any secret covert agencies this time around!)
7) Keep Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra to a Minimum, Even Off-Screen
Without a doubt, the biggest selling point for not only viewing audiences but CBS itself when it came to Limitless was the promise that Bradley Cooper would be reprising his movie role of Eddie Morra for the new series. In the pilot, we get a real sense of this when Morra shows up in the last act to essentially give Brian the tools he needs to not only finish his first story, but continue through the rest of the show’s arc (that of the “shots” that prevent him from suffering the side-effects of NZT). However, while fun, the last thing the series should do is overuse this device, even when it comes to moments Morra isn’t “technically” there.
If Morra is going to appear, it needs to happen whole hog. The last thing audiences want to see is a “representative of the senator” work with Brian because “Mr. Morra is currently unavailable.” We already know what that looks like every time Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. makes reference to an Avenger we know we’ll never see on the small screen. So, since the show can’t use Cooper all the time since, you know, he has a busy schedule, it should instead treat the sub-plot more like the way USA’s Suits treated Mike’s secret of not having a law degree for five seasons. Let it fade into the background until the opportunity arises where it can flair up. That would make it something interesting. Just when Brian feels safe and confident, boom, there’s Morra to bring him right back down to reality – or predict the future. He is a precog after all.
Limitless is a wonderful beginning to what could become a real small screen hit. It’s full of action, cool characters, interesting stories and, most of full, passion by the people making it to deliver something worthy of the source material. As long as it follows these 7 steps while also delivering some surprises along the way, there’s no reason to think the show’s isn’t going to have a long life on the home of Person of Interest in the years to come.
Previously by Merrill Barr: