Limitless: The Limits of Interpersonal Dynamics

The television adaptation of ‘Limitless’ has the backing of some big hitters and the springboard of a relatively popular film but it’s hampered by the lack of the one thing that made the film work, a strong and likeable lead in Mr Bradley Cooper.

With Bradley Cooper producing and Marc Webb (‘500 Days of Summer’, ‘Amazing Spider-Man’) directing, you would think that this could be really excellent. I foresaw certain issues before the pilot even aired especially that the story wasn’t a natural candidate for serialisation, but after watching the first episode I knew it had much bigger problems.

I’ve now seen every episode aired, and they have not done much at all to change my mind that a) the premise has been un-inventively shoehorned into a procedural format, and b) that to make this work you need a strong and likeable lead, which this really doesn’t have.

First thing’s first, the story. It doesn’t do anything special with the movie’s premise at all, the pilot episode set things up and from there it’s essentially been a law enforcement procedural. Yes there are ongoing story arcs related back to NZT, but so far there’s been very little about those arcs that has lingered in the mind as you would want it to. Each episode going very much as you would expect it to, with nothing substantially exceptional to make this stand out from all the other procedurals that are airing this season, and even less to make it stand out from some that have gone before.

One of the things most annoying me in Limitless is the lazy way of showing story development, with heavy reliance on Brian’s internal narration through much of the episodes, and even worse, at times actually talking to another on-screen him. There are small sequences in episodes that try to be visually creative, pastiches of other genres to illustrate the cases they are investigating or to explain some development Brian has figured out. In a show with an overall sense of fun and knowing silliness these could be enjoyable, in this show that takes itself way too seriously, they are jarring and off-putting. The episodes are all failing to draw me in and grab my attention, I can’t quite work out why but they are completely falling short on that most basic of requirements.

I think one of the biggest reasons it’s not grabbing me however is the lead. Jake McDorman is mediocre in the lead role, especially as he even says that NZT makes him annoying, and it certainly does. However, we have seen mildly annoying leads in procedurals before, often an air of arrogance or a facade of bravado is tempered with a roguish charm and playful nature that makes them somehow endearing. All the best ‘consultants with special abilities’ have had this recipe and gotten the mix of ingredients right, Patrick Jane, Rick Castle, the list goes on of characters who have had similar roles but their personalities have been stand-out performances that while annoying the characters arround them have forged a way into the hearts of audiences.

Other procedurals hang their hats on romances between the male and female leads, ‘Mentalist’, ‘Castle’ even the short-lived ‘Forever’ all do this, and while I think it’s good this doesn’t follow them exactly, the two characters should have some decent rapport for the show to work. The sad reality is that they don’t, at the very least they never get the chance to show it and from an acting perspective they never actually get the chance to develop it.

The relationship between Brian and his handler Rebecca (Jennifer Carpenter) is so poor, his character is so annoying when explaining things to another character, that the writers have avoided doing it much at all. There are scenes in the second episode when he turns up with the result rather than the development of the idea, minimising the screen time with his handler and when he does explain things to her it is rushed, she even leaves him a note at one point to avoid speaking to him.

What makes this even more disappointing, is that such a cop-out of developing good chemistry, it isn’t what you would expect of director Marc Webb, whose previous works such as ‘500 Days of Summer’ and ‘The Amazing Spider-man’ were praised for the great characters who oozed development and believable chemistry.

I don’t see people rooting for these two any time soon, or for the show for that matter. I like Marc Webb’s previous work, but this is an absolute stinker he’s burdened with right here, thankfully I can’t see it lasting all that much longer. With a hard-to-like lead and an overwhelming sense of lifelessness, it really isn’t what it should be. Cooper wasn’t amazingly lovable in the film, nor were his relationships particularly abounding with palpable chemistry, but where there was meant to be affection there was some semblance of such, and where there was friction and rivalry that too was conveyed. Of all the shows this year, Limitless has to be the one that least convinces me that the people in it are real or that their lives are something I should be interested in following.

Bradley Cooper is poised to swoop in to save ‘Limitless’ from an early grave by making another appearance next week. Though these occasional guest spots will give the show a boost in the ratings, they will also highlight the inadequacies of the writing and lead character. Cooper will inevitably steal the scenes he’s in, plus the storyline with his character as a senator aiming for the West Wing will be infinitely more interesting than any other episode or story arc in the season. Viewers will be left thinking two things, why isn’t he in this more (or better still leading it), and why isn’t this the story we’re following? Good questions that sadly have no satisfying answer beyond he’s got better things to do with his time and career.

With any other production team, this would already be pencilled in for the axe and considered a failure, propping up a lifeless show is a sad thing to watch. Hopefully it won’t go on for much longer. I fully expect this to be quietly cancelled after the first season ends and I doubt anybody will care enough to mount much of a protest in its defence.

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