When it comes to one-season TV series, Limitless (CBS) counts as one of the bigger “what if” scenarios in recent memory. At a time in which reboots, revivals, and re-imaginings lurk around every televisual (and cinematic) corner, Limitless (CBS), like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, adopted its premise from a film that’s since been boiled down to a handful of jokes—in the case of Limitless, “gimme that pill,” the very concept of a “smart pill,” and the image of Bradley Cooper’s Eddie Morra drinking smart pill-infused blood. Only Limitless didn’t expand on its main idea by retelling the story for the small screen. It did so by extending the movie universe, this time with a character you could actually root for: Jake McDorman’s Brian Finch. At every turn, in fact, Limitless the TV series understood the very goofiness of a story about “smart pills,” and turned it into an advantage. TV’s Limitless is the opposite of the original Limitless, replacing the latter’s nihilism with a genre-bending story about the one person in the world so goodhearted he can’t be corrupted by power.
Morra is a desperate man, and though he may not be the film’s antagonist, it arguably considers him a villain. This turns out to be the key to Limitless the TV series: Carried over from the film, Cooper’s devilish charm allows him to slip into the role of the series’ antagonist. By contrast, Brian, though a failed musician with no true direction in life, is someone with a strong support system who cares deeply for others—things Morra never had. So, when Brian gets a hit of NZT (the aforementioned smart drug) from his former bandmate, the first thing he does—without knowing what to expect from the pill—is prevent the company he’s temping for from keeping HR nightmares waiting to happen on board. The second thing he does, after the requisite goofing around for montage’s sake? He combs through medical texts to figure out the mystery illness plaguing his father (played by Ron Rifkin, because Cooper loves his Alias buddies). Soon enough, Brian’s using his NZT skills to help the FBI solve crimes. Morra, on the other hand, uses his access to NZT not only to land his career as a successful writer, but also to get laid, to get paid (switching from a writing career to one in finance), to bury murders that could be tied to him in some way, to reverse-engineer the drug to prevent side effects (creating an enzyme necessary for the series’ plot), and, as the series indicates, to forge a political career that puts him on a path to the White House. Morra is a megalomaniac, and Brian couldn’t be further from one.
To describe the tone and spirit of Limitless, it’s worth noting that it earnestly aired multiple episodes with exclamation points in the titles: “Badge! Gun!”, “Headquarters!” (which provided what may be the series’ greatest moment, a bonkers end tag about “The Bruntouchables”). Even its season/series finale is divided into “Part One!” and “Part Two!!”: As TV series go, Limitless is the purest embodiment of the word “stoked.” Other examples: The series’ second episode opens with a James Bond fantasy, then heads into a montage where Brian makes marionettes of his FBI bodyguards (among other stir-crazy acts in his safehouse). Or: Brian’s NZT-charged self creates for a video message to his “sober” self using claymation. Or: Brian lies to a witness about his brother’s future in prison, which leads to the strangest bit imaginable based on the opening credits of Entourage. Or: The episode about Brian’s first black op is not only titled “Brian Finch’s Black Op,” but is indeed a full-on homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. That was the series’ seventh episode, and by that point, Limitless had made clear exactly the type of series it was. Of course it wasn’t going to make it past the first season after that.
Whatever you think of this description, Limitless’ short shelf life shouldn’t be seen as a fair indication of its quality. CBS is the home of the standard procedural, home of the NCIS franchise and reboots of Hawaii-set classics Hawaii Five-0, Magnum P.I.. On the Eye, even the occasional series that transcends the usual “case of the week” format to tell a more serialized and creatively exciting story tells to fall through the cracks: Just ask series creator Jonathan Nolan, who pretty much tricked CBS into thinking serialized A.I. parable Person of Interest was just another procedural, only for CBS to force the series into airing several case-of-the-week episodes in its shortened final season. (It then picked up Wisdom of the Crowd, which was essentially a dumbed-down version Person of Interest. That lasted 13 episodes.) In context of the network, Limitless, another high-concept drama with sci-fi elements, might have signed its own death warrant, despite the fact that, according to Craig Sweeny—who developed the adaptation and served as showrunner—CBS pushed for more serialization and experimentalism from the series.
In truth, Limitless featured plenty of standard genre conventions, anyway: Like any good fish-out-of-water procedural, for instance, the series focused on the back-and-forth between Brian’s eagerness to be part of the team and the rest of the team’s eagerness to not have to deal with him. That team includes Brian’s FBI handler/partner, Special Agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter, fresh off of Dexter and appearing tonight in NBC’s new The Enemy Within), reluctant-to-trust-Brian Special Agent Spelman Boyle (Hill Harper), no-nonsense Special Agent-in-charge Naz Pouran (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio), and “Mike” (Michael James Shaw) and “Ike” (Tom Degnan), Brian’s bodyguards (and stealth MVPs of the series), whose names he intentionally refuses to learn. On a more serious note, the series’ run included episodes like “Stop Me Before I Hug Again,” in which Brian uses his NZT-infused brain to compartmentalize and disassociate during a serial killer case, processing the traumatic details (say, a stabbing) through the lens of a children’s TV program he used to watch. Why? Because Limitless never shied away from the fact that Brian was an ordinary guy thrown into the deep end, one beat of the fish-out-of-water procedural at which Limitlessexcelled above all others. (In Castle, Richard Castle wrote murder mysteries… which somehow made him totally cool seeing real dead bodies with the cops, and not a total psychopath.) Though the idea of a character having an issue with grisly murders is often a joke on procedurals, Limitless worked hard to show Brian’s humanity even when he was on NZT—a drug that, in theory, makes a person more machine than man.
To put it in terms I’ve used to describe Blindspot: Limitless was a procedural that fucks. I’d argue that it was the ultimate procedural that fucks. And the very things that made Limitless work as a post-modern procedural may also be the primary reasons viewers abandoned it. On the one hand, it might have been “too weird”—especially for a network like CBS, where uniformity and simplicity is the lifeblood of all its long-lasting ratings juggernauts. On the other, it might not have been weird enough, in the same sense that audiences now often ignore stellar sitcoms simply because they happen to be filmed with multiple cameras before a live studio audience.
In this, the series is a microcosm of the central dilemma facing the broadcast networks, trying to please everyone and so pleasing no one: The people who were supposed to eat up procedurals didn’t watch Limitless because of its experimental bent, and the people who would be interested in the series’ experiments—whether its fourth wall-breaking, its genre-bending, or its ability to laugh at itself and the procedural more broadly—refused to sample it because it was labeled a procedural. To those who stuck around, the series is a reminder of how impactful only one season of television can be, even after it’s gone. Limitless is dead. Long live Limitless.
Limitless is now streaming on Netflix and CBS All Access.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.