In the US: Tuesdays, 10/9c, CBS
One of the best things about Dexter, Showtime’s little-known show about a serial killer who only kills bad people, was Jennifer Carpenter. A foul-mouthed force of nature, she was both fun and clearly having fun in the show – for the first few seasons at least.
Post-Dexter, her career hasn’t taken off, unfortunately. An attempted USA Network pilot, Stanistan, failed to make it to series, meaning she had to pin her hopes this year on CBS’s Limitless spin-off.
Park that thought for a second because the progress of Limitless from book to TV series is instructive. It originally started life as The Dark Fields, a novel by Irish novellist Alan Glynn about a down-and-out writer who takes a new drug, NZT, that can expand his mental powers. Effectively a metaphor for how people on cocaine feel, it sees the hero turn his life round, become rich and powerful, and ultimately completely dependent on the drug, which turns out to have horrific side effects for those who stop taking it. Unusually for a European writer, though, the moral of the book was ‘don’t do drugs’ and ‘Eddie Spinola’ (spoiler alert) ends up dying alone in a motel room.
The book was eventually adapted by Leslie Dixon of all people. Until Limitless, Dixon was best known as the screenplay writer of Outrageous Fortune, Overboard, Mrs. Doubtfire, Freaky Friday and Hairspray. However, for Limitless, although largely faithful to the original, Dixon actually improved on it in several ways: she added action scenes, a new female character (Abbie Cornish) and changed the ending. In her hands, hero Bradley Cooper also discovers the good side of drugs, solves NZT’s side-effects and ends up running for senator, thanks to the power of NZT. Director Neil Burger and cinematographer Jo Willems also gave the movie a unique visual appearance.
And now we have the TV version, which is both a sequel and an adaptation of the movie. In a script by Elementary producer Craig Sweeny, we get Jake McDorman of you’ll-have-forgotten-it-existed-until-I-mentioned-it-again Manhattan Love Story as a down-and-out singer who ends up taking NZT and with the help of Bradley Cooper, becomes a vital FBI asset, using his vast mental powers to solve crimes no one else can. His helper and biggest support? Jennifer Carpenter.
And two things are clear:
- Although adaptations can improve on the originals, they can also make them worse
- You can be too slavish too the original when you adapt it
Why do I say that? Because although Limitless isn’t all that bad and is actually quite fun, mainly thanks to all the things it lifts straight from the movie’s script and direction, it lifts too much – by having a Bradley Cooper-esque hero, it overlooks the fact the show would have been about 1,000 times smarter and better if Jennifer Carpenter were the heroine on NZT, McDorman the straight-laced FBI helper.
Here’s the trailer.
Limitless follows the story of Brian Finch – an ordinary guy who gets his hands on an extraordinary drug called NZT that allows his brain to work more efficiently than he ever imagined.
Is it any good?
It’s reasonably good. But it’s still not as good as it could have been.
Part of the reason for this is that they’ve really just taken Limitless and bolted a police procedural format onto it. No innovation, no attempts to make it a show about something or to have the new hero do a Pretender and take up a different career every week, or have him wander the Earth like Caine in Kung Fu. No, it’s plain old solve a crime a week by being smart. Limitless, The Mentalist, Numb3rs, Elementary, Criminal Minds, Intelligence, Scorpion, CSI – the time it would take me to complete the list of identical shows on CBS over the past few years would be ridiculous.
The other reason is that McDorman is the hero. Don’t get me wrong: he’s amiable and quite fun to watch. But he’s basically a cheaper, diluted, TV version of Bradley Cooper. If he had an edge once, he’s had it surgically removed so he can be the platonic ideal of the sympathetic TV action hero – perhaps he was once even featured in Lisa Simpson’s “non-threatening boys” magazine as some point in his life. And even with the aid of special effects, he never, ever suggests ‘genius in action’.
Meanwhile, Jennifer Carpenter has to play second-fiddle to McDorman’s character, playing the daughter of a druggie father who turned out to have died from NZT withdrawal. And that’s it. It’s a straight-laced, thankless role that’s far, far beneath Carpenter.
I imagine the reason for casting as they have is because they don’t want to stray too far from the movie. In fact, the first 15 minutes of the episode is almost identical to the first 15 minutes of the movie, borrowing both the plot, narration and even direction. The show then starts to fall apart as it diverges from the movie, before pulling itself together by the end to give us the series set-up and a brief cameo from series producer Cooper, who looks like he walked in from a very late night for his two-minute appearance.
All the same, Limitless’s first episode is engaging enough. McDorman’s loser life, his family (which include Ron Rifkin) et al are reasonably well drawn and the show’s narrative and style, taken from the movie, give it a depth and charm that its general ordinariness belies. There’s the general question of what Cooper wants with McDorman. And there’s always both Carpenter and Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio (Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves), who gets the gruff police chief role.
Still, for a sure called Limitless, you’d expect something a whole lot less limited.