‘Limitless’ Review: Bradley Cooper Spin-Off Is Ridiculous and Charming

Jake McDorman brings style as the lead of new CBS drama

Much like the 2011 film that inspired it, “Limitless” gets by thanks to the brash combination of a clever premise and a cheeky acknowledgment of its own pulp ludicrousness. The worry is that this CBS drama, toplined by Jake McDorman (“Shameless”), will grow far more conventional after its engaging pilot, turning from a quirky character piece into a standard detective show. But for one episode anyway, “Limitless’s” potential seems … well, hardly limitless, but perhaps promising.

Familiarity with the original film, a thriller that starred Bradley Cooper as an underachieving writer whose life is upended after he takes a black-market, brain-boosting drug, helps but is hardly necessary. The CBS series kicks off a few years later as Brian Finch (McDorman), a struggling New York singer-songwriter, faces the reality that he may have to give up on his rock & roll dreams. (Even more devastating, his beloved, supportive father, played by Ron Rifkin, is stricken with a mysterious serious illness his doctors can’t pinpoint.)

But things start looking up for Brian after he runs into one of his old bandmates, who long ago sold out and took a high-paying banking job, suggesting that Brian’s writer’s block could be cured with the help of a potent underground pill known as NZT. After taking NZT, Brian is suddenly able to utilize his brain’s full capacity: He’s hyper-aware, infinitely creative and incredibly smart, which gives him the aptitude to diagnose his father’s disease. Suddenly feeling like his existence may have some purpose after all, Brian craves more of the drug, but when he goes to his friend’s place to get more, he discovers he’s been murdered, and the FBI (led by Jennifer Carpenter‘s Agent Rebecca Harris) believe he’s behind the killing.

Part whodunit and part “Fugitive”-style chase picture, the “Limitless” pilot relies heavily on McDorman’s rakish, slightly sarcastic charm and his character’s rapport with Harris, who from the start wonders if Brian might not be the killer. (Part of her intuition is linked to a backstory secret that will be revealed by episode’s end, creating a convenient, contrived motivating factor for them to team up on future criminal investigations.) Wanting to clear his name, super-smart Brian brings Harris evidence of a conspiracy to kill those with NZT, and the two characters quickly establish a prickly, cautious partnership that exudes just enough sexual tension to make viewers wonder if a hookup is in their future.

The first episode was directed by executive producer Marc Webb, whose recent gig as the filmmaker behind the rebooted Andrew Garfield “Spider-Man” movies has prepared him for “Limitless'” action set pieces and suspenseful headlong rush. The plotting is pretty perfunctory, but McDorman wears the show’s hyperbolic intensity lightly, as if playfully mocking the hard-boiled self-seriousness around him. But he also brings pathos to Brian’s gnawing sense of failure. Fearful that he’s always going to disappoint a father who never stopped believing in him, Brian may not be a complex character so far, but the actor exudes a soulfulness that was intentionally lacking in Cooper’s far more egotistical writer Eddie Morra.

Speaking of Morra, he makes an appearance in the pilot, and Cooper (also an executive producer) gives “Limitless” a magnetic star power–not to mention a tinge of menace as Morra (now a U.S. senator mulling a presidential run) offers Brian some guidance, and a warning, about using NZT. Just how much Cooper will pop up in subsequent “Limitless” episodes remains unknown, but his presence may help boost the show’s ratings.

That may be critical considering that the pilot ends by establishing what will be “Limitless’s” structure moving forward: Brian and Harris will work together to solve crimes, the FBI wanting to use him as a guinea pig for the effects of NZT on detectives. On paper, that setup isn’t especially riveting–just another cop show?–but the hope is that “Limitless” will continue to be sufficiently crafty and colorful enough to overcome that possible limitation.