The Limitless Boredom of CBS’ Speed-Fueled ‘Limitless’


Did you ever watch a friend pop Adderall or Ritalin during hell week in college, then race through a term paper while talking incessantly and aggressively to themselves about nothing at all, moving and shaking without going anywhere? If you have, then you’ve basically already seen the first episode of Limitless.

Another of 2015’s questionable movie-to-television adaptations, Limitless is disappointing almost immediately. Set four years after the events of the film, it stars Jake McDorman (Greek) as Brian Finch, a slacker extraordinaire who is failing to fulfill his potential. His mother wanted him to be a doctor, but he decides to front a sweaty punk band with members who drop out as they grow up. The series really kicks off when Brian discovers a mysterious brain pill called NZT.

NZT, which works like Adderall if Adderall took Adderall, makes Brian really smart, good at Parkour, and able to remember just about everything he ever learns. He’s suddenly a guitar genius and a a chess prodigy. He even has some Mentalist/Psych-like abilities of intelligence and observation. Essentially, instead of a show about a white dude who thinks he’s the smartest guy in the room, we get a show about a white dude who is the smartest guy in the room.

To build dramatic tension, Brian learns about his ailing father (Ron Rifkin) and goes about trying to figure out what he’s suffering from. NZT gives him the ability to digest basically every one of his brother’s medical text books, but once he diagnoses his father, a new problem arises. It’s not that interesting, though, because nothing in Limitless is very interesting. Brian’s father has a mysterious disease, but Brian figures out what it is; NZT has negative side effects, but Bradley Cooper makes his promised appearance and gives Brian an out; FBI Agent Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter) chases Brian down into the subway, but even those two end up on the same side; Brian sets up a bank-robbery situation similar to the one that kicked off Prison Break‘s engaging narrative, but it’s all shrugged off. So what’s to come after the pilot?

A procedural, of course! Because this is CBS, where every drama is required to also have procedural elements. By the end of the pilot episode, Brian is (sort of) recruited by the FBI. Because of his ability to take NZT without the side effects, his intelligence and physical skills make him a key candidate for the bureau, and he needs something from them, so a reluctant arrangement is made.

The biggest issue with Limitless is that it’s boring. It’s fast-paced boredom, big-budget boredom, boredom with a Bradley Cooper cameo. There is a voiceover and there are multiple scenes in which Brian talks to himself after taking NZT, explaining everything that’s different under its influence. Even the visuals, which would normally add some interest, feel mundane because they are just a carbon copy of the film’s visual palette. These effects — which show the interior of Brian’s brain and the ways in which NZT effects his neurological system — slow down the narrative more than anything else.

It’s disappointing because CBS, despite its punchline status, does have a knack for procedural programs that have the potential to last forever. If subsequent episodes of Limitless are markedly better than the pilot, which speeds nowhere, it could very well become CBS’s next big thriller franchise (Limitless: LA? Limitless: Suspect Behavior?). Maybe the show will improve when it kicks into the case-of-the-week format and ramps up the nonsensical effects of this mysterious pill, but I don’t have high hopes.

Limitless premieres Tuesday, September 22 at 10 PM.