A few weeks ago several members of the press, including myself, got the opportunity to visit the post-production offices of CBS’s “Limitless.” There, creator Craig Sweeny not only previewed key scenes from the first and second episodes of the season, but with the help of editor Christopher Capp showed multiple versions of one of the pilot’s biggest action sequences, digging into the technical details and artistic choices that built towards the final version.
In this age of groundbreaking television — TV attempting to push beyond our greatest expectations of what the medium might be capable of — it initially felt a bit weird, to spend an entire afternoon examining the craft behind a CBS crime drama. But sticking with that attitude doesn’t just do “Limitless” a disservice, it slights the potential that every new television show contains.
Technically, “Limitless” echoes no shortage of trends happening in network television. Like Fox’s “Minority Report,” it was born of a previously released feature film. Like CBS’s “Elementary,” it’s primarily a procedural, but one that happens to include serialized elements. And like “Minority Report,” “Castle,” “Sleepy Hollow,” “Person of Interest,” “The Mentalist” and God knows how many other shows, it’s specifically a procedural with serialized elements about a guy with an unconventional skill set who helps a lady detective solve crimes.
And that makes sense for CBS, when you consider how much of its stable of programming plays it safe, whether it be multi-camera sitcoms or the “NCIS”/”CSI” franchises. But just because something fits into a genre doesn’t mean it can’t have a little fun; something that seems to be of great interest to Sweeny.
Sweeny’s first gig as an executive producer was on the Patricia Arquette-uses-her-ghost-powers-to-solve-crime series “Medium,” and he leaped to showrunning “Limitless” after three years writing for “Elementary.”
“I do write whatever the weirdest thing on procedural TV is at any given moment,” he said when Indiewire spoke with him after the screening. “‘Medium’ was very strange and ‘Elementary’ had some very high-concept episodes as well, so I know how to inject that into a CBS show. There was a talking fetus in the first episode and no one said, ‘Take out the talking fetus.’ We have breaking the fourth wall and singing in the second episode and they’re not telling us to take it out. They’re saying they like it. So, for now anyway, they’re letting us have fun.”
Much of that fun comes in how the “Limitless” team — including “500 Days of Summer” director Marc Webb, who directed the pilot and second episode — chooses to represent the show’s basic premise. In case you don’t remember the 2011 Bradley Cooper film that now essentially serves as a prequel, there is a drug called NZT that, when you take it, makes you supernaturally smart for about 12 hours at a time. When lovable slacker Brian (Jake McDorman) stumbles into taking the drug, he gets the opportunity to totally change his life; while, yes, also helping the FBI solve crime with his newly improved mental faculties.
Sweeny fought very, very hard to avoid using any variation of the phrase “He’s using 100 percent of his brain” in the pilot, despite pressure to do so. (The exact compromise he came up with was “Your brain is a miracle, but it’s not efficient… But now suddenly I had access to every single brain cell.”)
But when Brian is using NZT, the show’s color palette and filming style are altered dramatically, becoming warmer and more seamless. In addition, time lapse photography and effects shots featuring multiple Brians conversing with each other add almost a surreal edge to the onscreen action. Add in the talking fetus, and it almost doesn’t feel like you’re watching CBS.
Until, that is, you remember that there’s a crime to be solved, and Brian (along with “Dexter” survivor Jennifer Carpenter as his designated lady detective liason) is the guy to do it. Not that Sweeny minds that so much: “What I like about the procedural model is the idea of a self-contained case gives you a lot of highs and lows in any individual episode,” he said. “The act-out moments tend to come from your case… so it lets the characters’ lives develop in a way that’s maybe even more organic than in the typical short form show.”
“I’m saying we’re better than ‘Mad Men,'” he laughed.
He was joking, but the fact is that “Limitless” does have in some ways a bigger challenge in front of it: the old-school network demand for 22 episodes per season. (Compared to “Mad Men, ” which aired seven eps in 2015.)
“It’s tough,” Sweeny said. “It’s such a long haul you can’t really think about it too much. Once you have an episode that’s being written and one that’s being produced and one that’s in post-production and you’re still trying to come up with new ideas, your attention is so pooled in different places. The blessing of that is there’s not a lot of time to be like, ‘Holy shit, I have to do 20 more of these.’ You just don’t think about it.”
One interesting twist in “Limitless” functioning not as a remake, but as a sequel to the original film, is that while Bradley Cooper, as Eddie, was ostensibly the film’s protagonist, his presence in the series is very different. As a guest star in the pilot (and an off-screen force in subsequent episodes; at least for now, though Cooper is also an executive producer) he’s ambiguous at best, with no shortage of menace.
“What’s weird is it wasn’t a controversial thing,” Sweeney said of that shift. “Everyone just kind of expected that’s what Eddie would be like now. Bradley certainly did. I guess the differences between Brian and Eddie are the differences in tone between the movie and TV show. Eddie was kind of an antihero. He takes the pill, the first thing he does is sleep with somebody’s wife. He’s a bro, you know. So I think it’s consistent with the character that you see.”
Eddie’s presence is a big factor in the fact that, as mentioned before, the first season will feature not just crimes of the week, but a bigger narrative that unfolds over the course of the season. And according to Sweeny, that was something CBS pushed for: “Serialized stuff is becoming a bigger and bigger part of the episodes as it goes along. It’s a bigger part of the mix than I would have thought. So we’re serving that every week. You set signposts at the beginning of the year, which gives you something to know that is out there, like a star that you’re sailing toward. But you have to stay flexible too. If they call you and say, ‘Hey, Bradley Cooper can be in this episode,’ you have to rejigger everything based on that.”
Like other shows of its ilk, a year from now “Limitless” will probably not be up for any major awards. But there’s intelligence behind its choices, and McDorman makes for a fun and likeable lead, and it may not be groundbreaking television, but it’s running wild with this opportunity to be weird. We’re not talking the level of bonkers found in CBS’s summer programming. We’re instead talking about something that could be genuinely watchable and sustainable and — dare I say it — fun.
“Limitless” airs Tuesdays at 10pm on CBS.