‘Limitless’ Pilot Recap: “You’re Not Smart, You’re High”

The promo ads for CBS’ new adaptation of the hit 2011 movie ‘Limitless’ have loudly and proudly trumpeted the return of three-time Oscar nominee Bradley Cooper to network television. Does it really surprise anyone that he’s only in the pilot episode for about 30 seconds at the very end?

Honestly, ‘Limitless‘ was not a great movie to begin with and certainly didn’t need a TV spin-off. A ‘Flowers for Algernon’ tale about a man of average intelligence and abilities who takes a mystery drug that makes him super-smart, the film regurgitated that old (totally false) myth about people only using 10% of their brains, and ultimately promoted the idea that illegal mind-altering drugs are a really good thing that will make you popular and successful. The only things the movie had going for it were Bradley Cooper’s likeable screen charisma and director Neil Burger’s playful visual trickery.

The TV version tries to mimic both of those things as best it can. New star Jake McDorman (‘Shameless’, ‘Manhattan Love Story’) has a lot of the same sort of charm and appeal that Cooper did, and pilot episode director Marc Webb (of the ‘Amazing Spider-Man’ movies) straight-up copies many of Burger’s visual flourishes, including on-screen graphic overlays and seemingly-infinite focal zooms.

The show is positioned as a sequel to the movie. McDorman plays Brian Sinclair, a hapless slacker and failed musician whose endlessly supportive father (Ron Rifkin) has recently fallen ill with a mystery disease his doctors can’t pin down. When Brian takes a thankless temp job at a financial firm, he runs into a former bandmate named Eli who has somehow become a hugely successful investment banker. Eli introduces Brian to the illicit designer drug known as NZT, which opens his mind and allows him to diagnose his father’s illness.

The problem with NZT is that it only lasts 12 hours and causes very painful withdrawal symptoms. When Brian heads back to Eli’s apartment for another fix, he finds his friend murdered. Just as he scours the place and locates his friend’s stash of extra NZT pills, a couple of FBI agents (Jennifer Carpenter and Hill Harper) burst in and give him chase down a fire escape. Fortunately, the NZT kicks in quickly and gives Brian amazing parkour skills.

Eventually, Brian convinces agent Rebecca (Carpenter) of his innocence and uses his immense brain power to help her find the real killer, another douchebag investment banker at Eli’s company. However, he gets shot in the leg in the process and nearly bleeds to death until Eddie Morra (Bradley Cooper), now an important U.S. Senator, swoops in to save him. Morra says that he’s been watching Brian, and reveals that he has used his vast wealth to perfect a new, side-effect-free version of NZT, which he offers freely to Brian in exchange for unspecified future favors. “You ready to become somebody who matters?” he asks.

At the end of the episode, Brian reconnects with Rebecca, who explains that her father was an NZT user. She blames the drug for his death, and desperately wants to find the source of it. Rebecca convinces her FBI Director (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) that Brian can be an asset, and he agrees to join them as a consultant.

So, yes, the show is going to be a crime procedural, in which Brian uses his drug-enhanced intelligence to help the FBI solve murders and kidnappings and other serious illegal activity every week.

Episode Verdict / Grade: C

The show has the same fundamental problem that the movie did, which is its wrong-headed glamorization and endorsement of consequence-free drug usage, and seems to be completely oblivious to this. The fact that it will then turn this concept into yet another formulaic CBS crime procedural is both ridiculous and depressing.

Throw in the fact that the end title card reveals that uber-hacks Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci serve as Executive Producers, and I’ve had enough. One episode is as much as I need to sample. I’m out.


  1. Biil

    A few years ago it was Gabriel Vaughan who could link himself into the WWW and use his abilities to solve crimes. That series had some promise but died at the end of the summer. This one looks similar although it does have a different gimmick. I expect that it will probably go the same way and quickly. An early cancellation is in the cards.

  2. Chris M.

    If I remember right in Flowers for Algernon Charlie was of a below average intelligence. That’s what made it so frustrating for him as he began to become mentally disabled again after being brought to normal/above average intelligence. Honestly I’d say Awakenings is more related to Flowers for Algernon than Limitless i.e. a treatment that results in drastic improvement but unfortunately does not last, resulting in permanent original debilitated state

    • Josh Zyber

      Regardless, he’s given a drug that makes him smarter temporarily. You’ll get no argument from me that Flowers for Algernon is far more complex and interesting than anything in Limitless, but the premise of the movie/show clearly borrows from that story.

  3. Timcharger

    Josh: “the end title card reveals that uber-hacks Alex Kurtzman and Roberto Orci”

    I cursed aloud when reading that and asked,
    Is there no limit to their swath of destruction?

    And in response, Kurtzman and Orci pointed
    their fingers to the title: Limitless.

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