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Jake McDorman in Limitless

Limitless, Season 1, Episode 1 - All Action and Wasted Potential

HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell Limitless provides a passable debut, though one that favours its plot ahead of any depth of themes. Spinning off from the film of the same name, the pilot is colourful and stylish, but its rapid pace is prioritised, making for shallow drama.

We meet Brian Finch (Jake McDorman) at the beginning, running from the FBI and jumping down in front of a train, and we’re meant to feel a rush of blood, a kick of adrenaline. But too many shows start like this, with a full throttle opening, a plea for us to forgive the exposition of moving parts going forward.

Turns out, the episode didn’t even really need it, because it rushes through its set-up in order to jump straight into a plot that’s well thought out, if fairly standard fare. The exposition, on the other hand, is utilised to an extreme extent. Brian narrates the entire episode, and it’s an element in film and television that can prove very tedious.

At times it works, at others it doesn’t. The script attempts to narrate events and possibilities through clever and witty casualness, but it acts a bit like present tense in prose. It actually makes everything feel less urgent, which is jarring considering that the camerawork and the soundtrack are aiming to do the exact opposite.

The pilot's hurry to shortcut past the developmental stage makes Brian a fairly unsympathetic character, despite early scenes in which the sole aim is to make him exactly the opposite. It takes a forced hand, painting a man who is struggling through life and then, in a flash, a man whose father falls gravely ill.

We start to care momentarily, but then the drug, AZT, which basically opens up the user’s brain to full capability, rears its head. Along with apparent superhuman abilities, Brian also loses his ability to feel emotion. He sees an old friend lying in a pool of his own blood, and he searches him for pills. After that, the episode makes attempts to show us just how much the dead friend meant to Brian, after the fact, and it’s awfully shallow.

Despite the shortcomings of the narration, the dialogue is clever and speedy, though it makes for unrealistic interaction. This is evident in an early scene in which Brian essentially gives a stranger life advice, and the woman turns into a device that’s meant to reiterate the fact that this drug is awesome and so is Brian. But not quite.

Instead, the drug fills the protagonist with (understandable) arrogance, and because the episode by-passes most of its emotional cues, the action-filled hour disconnects us from Brian. At times, we’re reconnected, notably when he’s withdrawing, but while by the end of the episode he shapes up as a capable lead character, he shows little potential for a deeper presence going forward.

Jennifer Carpenter, of Dexter fame, plays the detective front and center in the search for the fugitive, and her character is hurtled into the AZT phenomena via a ‘standard fugitive’ case. Carpenter is a commendable actor, and she delivers with what she’s given in the pilot. In the final scene, she becomes the far more interesting character due to her personal history with AZT. It makes up for her shaky detective work and reliance on Brian.

The pilot episode needs to draw its viewers in quickly, and probably unmistakably it goes for action over drama. But without suspense and build up, action falls short. And that’s indeed the case here. The plot escalates so quickly, and Brian goes from nobody to somebody so rapidly, that the events taking place feel unnaturally minute.

Limitless has themes of drug-use simmering beneath its surface, but the potential for a deeper presence on the small screen is set aside as a b-plot to make way for Brian’s mission to clear his name. His urgency to save his father too is cast aside in the third and fourth acts, and comes back late just in time to remind us that we should actually care.

It has all the makings of a series that could deepen and strengthen its source material, while also tackling topics that are currently relevant, but it settles for an action story with a slight emotional thread. Hopefully with the pilot out of the way, the series can slow down and let us spend time in the heads of its characters, which is ironically not the case here.


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HaydnSpurrell HaydnSpurrell

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