Wednesday, September 30, 2015

How "Limitless" is Rising Above Other Procedurals

When I saw the Limitless pilot at San Diego Comic-Con, I thought it was good. I thought it was funny and it definitely had potential. I was extremely impressed by and engaged with the producers and what they had to say during our roundtable in the press room.

But I'll admit it -- I was concerned. Because the show was picked up by CBS, there is a certain stigma attached to it. Namely, that stigma is "procedural." Automatically, I often cringe at that word because it's synonymous, so often, with "formulaic" and "predictable." I say this, of course, as someone who watched CSI:NY for the vast majority of the time it was on the air and as a person who loved the original CSI, too. I enjoy procedurals (I watch The Blacklist, which I consider to be one of those and for a long time there, Sleepy Hollow was essentially a case-of-the-week series too), but they often leave something to be desired. They can become dry, like a hamster spinning around the same wheel, and mostly end up recycling plots from procedurals before (or, oftentimes even from earlier seasons of their own show).

So I was apprehensive, expecting that maybe Limitless would start out of the gate strong and its second episode would turn into the generic, predictable formula of a procedural that I have seen hundreds of times over dozens of years. And while there are elements of the series that tie it to a procedural in theme (the FBI, a case-of-the-week story structure, etc.), there are a lot more elements that set this show apart from everything I've seen recently on television. It is emerging in a market where there are more procedurals than ever fighting for our attention (you still have NCIS and its spinoffs, Criminal Minds, new series like Blindspot, returning veterans like Law and Order, hits such as The Blacklist and Scorpion, etc.), and there are a few things that have managed to set apart this show from all the rest. I thought I would discuss some of the elements within the first two episodes of Limitless alone that have made this series rise above a lot of new and returning series for me, while also explaining what I hope the series will continue to do.

The charismatic lead character.

A lot of procedurals are ensemble series. In fact, most of them are. If you look at franchises like CSI and NCIS and Criminal Minds, there are definitely lead and supporting characters, but for the most part, the shows work because the functionality is based on a team -- on a group of individuals and CSIs or FBI agents. What makes Limitless work is the exact opposite: its focus is not on a team, but on one person.

Brian Finch is the main character of this show. He doesn't have to share the spotlight with other characters (we'll talk more about Rebecca and Boyle later on). Yes, he works with them. but we arne't privy to their thoughts and internal monologues the way we are to Brian's. This is HIS story and HIS journey and the audience immediately connects to him because he asks us to. We don't have to choose a favorite team member to connect with -- there aren't six options for us to latch onto. We have only one in Brian, and that is why this series is unique.

Jake McDorman is absolutely the main element that carries this show already. His charisma and wit and charm are off the charts. He can smile and smirk and make you giggle, then immediately break your heart in the next scene when he's beside his ailing father's bed. You want him to succeed, to find his purpose and calling, and your heart aches a little for him when he realizes what he has to do in order to keep the people he cares about safe. In the exact opposite of shows like Psych and Suits, Brian doesn't WANT to lie and keep a secret from his friends and family members. He doesn't lie because it benefits him; he lies because it benefits THEM.

And as the series continues, I know that Jake will be the anchor of Limitless. He's already proven, in two episodes, to be a tour de force. I cannot wait to see what he does with more scenes and episodes in the future.

The cases are a focus, but not the focus.

I really appreciate the fact that the characters (and Brian, obviously, in particular) seem to be more of the focus of Limitless than the cases themselves. It's not as if the stories are unimportant or uninteresting -- it's just that they're not the only story the show is telling. And I like that. Too often, procedurals fail because they slip into the monotony of case after case. After three seasons of murders, it's hard to make any of them sound interesting or unique anymore to a viewer. They just sort of blend together. So I appreciate that this show is trying to tell a story framed by crime-solving, rather than construct a crime-solving dramaedy and then scramble to overlay it with an actual story. The most compelling parts of the show so far are those that focus on either Brian's internal or external struggles, or his relationships with the people around him.

The cases are just catalysts for character growth. And honestly, Limitless, that's exactly what crime shows should do. Thank you for doing it right so far. Keep up the good work.

There is an overarching mystery that doesn't involve a case the team is working.

I was thinking about this at the gym tonight (yeah, you read that sentence correctly) and I came to the conclusion that a lot of problems I have with procedurals involve the cases that are worked and the lack of substance beyond those cases. Mysteries are cool in shows. I think that Blindspot has done an excellent job of setting up an overarching mystery that is engaging and intriguing. And what Limitless has done is much of the same -- it's set up a mystery from the get-go that is independent from the case-of-the-week formula. I loved CSI, but most of their overarching mysteries were still tied to cases that the CSIs were working (think back to things like the miniature killer).

So far, in Limitless, the mystery of NZT isn't tied to a case that Brian is working. It's tied to him -- to his family and his personal life. And that gives the mystery itself more weight and significance. Because now the stakes are raised. This isn't about solving a puzzle or a crime -- it's about protecting himself and his family. I'm really interested to see what Eddie Morra's end game is here. It's clear the show is setting up his motivations and puppet-like control over Brian as an important element in the series. I'm interested to know why, truly, and I think that the show has already done a good job of laying the foundation for that mystery to be solved (or at least explored). The hints have been subtle enough to where they're not heavy-handed (did anyone else call the twist at the end of the second episode like, a half a second before it happened? I did, but still gasped when the nurse came into the room anyway).

I think that this show is doing a really good thing by setting Brian's arc with Eddie up as something independent from the FBI cases. Connecting the Eddie Morra storyline to the storyline about Brian's family is SO much more powerful than any case-of-the-week could be.

Emotion is the foundation for the show and character motivations.

Everything about Brian and his motivation for joining the FBI in the first place is rooted in a place of real emotion. His relationship with his father is what keeps him grounded, both on NZT and off of it. And at the end of the second episode, Brian is faced with a choice. He can be honest with his father about his role in the FBI and him essentially being high the entire time in order to do his job... or he can protect his father's health by following Eddie Morra's (threatening) advice.

At Comic-Con, I asked a question to the producers of whether or not they found it difficult to figure out how to balance all of the elements of Limitless: the storytelling and the drama and the procedural nature and the heart. Craig Sweeny laughed and said that it was difficult to do. And then Alex Kurtzman, an executive producer, said this:

You have to layer that up in the right way. There’s a specific sequence to the ordering of those things and that if – at the core – you don’t understand or believe in or root for why he’s doing what he’s doing, then it stops right there. But because he’s trying to save his dad, and because you’re going on that ride, it allows you to funny, it allows you to be dramatic, it allows you to be scary. The central motivation is the foundation for everything. And then you build on that.
That's what I really respect about the show as it stands right now. Limitless isn't a show about solving crimes. It isn't even a show about being a world-changer. It's a show about sacrificing for your family and figuring out your place in the world. I love that and I respect that. I'm definitely excited to see more of Brian's struggles as he tries to balance his family with his FBI life (as well as struggling to keep secrets to maintain everyone's safety).

The humor and wit color the series and prevent it from bordering on melodrama.

I'm obsessed with the humor in Limitless. It's quirky and sarcastic and quick-witted. Additionally, if you don't watch this show yet, you need to watch for the inventive and utterly brilliant way that it integrates graphics and directing. Part of the fun in the show is the fact that we're treated to Brian's side of the story -- we get his inner thoughts and his running monologue. So we get to hear his voice constantly. And it's great because Brian is a really funny, engaging, charismatic guy (again, you guys, Jake McDorman deserves all the praise I can give him for this character). And that means that when Brian is annoyed with someone, he explains so in an exasperated tone. He makes fun of people. He tunes out conversations that bore him. He adds music over surveillance footage because he thinks it's more awesome that way.

In some ways, Brian is a man-child, and it's really fun to watch Jake play with that dichotomy -- with Brian on NZT being this really intellectual, more stoic and polished person and then having him off NZT as this goofy, fun, lovable slacker. I love that we get to see Brian tease people and make up nicknames for his security guards (MIKE AND IKE). I love that he has this incredibly endearing sense of humor and sass. It makes Limitless a FUN show to watch. It doesn't feel like I'm sloshing through melodrama and darkness each week. The dark elements of this show will come, I have no doubt. But I love that this series is already set up as a sort of antithesis to a dark crime-drama. It has joy and exuberance and sarcasm in it, which sets it apart from everything else I've seen thus far in the genre. (In a lot of ways, it's more reminiscent of something like Psych.)

The characters are unique, not archetypes.

One of my favorite things thus far about Limitless is that the characters we've met aren't archetypes. We don't know enough about Boyle yet to understand his story, but even he isn't the typical "cop who is constantly annoyed by everyone and everything and refuses to see truth." And Rebecca is already a million times more layered than most procedurals would allow. We've fleshed out some of her backstory (especially her relationship with her now-deceased father, which makes for a nice contrast between Brian and his father), and what I love most about her as a character is that she's so NOT the FBI agent I'm accustomed to seeing on television. It doesn't take her forever to warm up to Brian's charm and intellect. She's already fighting for him to be on the team from day one (and even more so in the second episode). She genuinely cares about Brian and it doesn't take her half a season to see him as a partner or an equal. Rebecca may roll her eyes at him every now and then, but Brian isn't someone she thinks of as beneath her. She wants to include him in cases and keep him under her wing. I like that. I enjoy the slow build in relationships, but I also love when characters make instant connections on television just like people do in real life.

We've already talked about him a lot, but Brian isn't just a slacker. It'd be easy to label him that way -- to think of him as nothing more than a guy who takes a drug so he can stop being one thing and start being another. But all of Brian's motivations are rooted in selflessness rather than selfishness. That's something really unique that sets him apart as not just a character in a procedural, but a character in a television show.

I am really enjoying Limitless (if you can't tell already) and if you have yet to check it out, I highly recommend that you do. It airs on CBS on Tuesdays at 10 PM. If you do decide to watch the show, hang out with us on Twitter and chat about your favorite elements, or drop a comment in the comments section below! :)


  1. Great article! I'm loving this show too!

  2. i absolutely love this show too, and you listed the same reasons i've had. i've already rewatched the two episodes about 4 times each! and i love noticing the details i missed in the previous watches. i'm trying to tell all my friends to watch this show so we can talk more. i'm glad the ratings have been stable from week 1 to 2, so i foresee the show doing well enough for cbs to keep it around. hopefully for a long while! :)

  3. This show is basically Psych with an NZT twist. They turned what could have been a really good idea into another crime solving drama. Like we don't already have enough crime solving TV shows. Just got done watching the 3rd episode and I'm already bored to death. As I stated before, it's just Psych with NZT, just a rehash of a rehash.

    As for your article, um yeah, this show is MOST definitely about solving crimes, how managed to get "sacrificing for your family" is beyond me. The majority of Brian's time on NZT is spent solving crimes, NOT making sacrifices for his family. Not to mention he's bold facing lying to them about everything he's involved with. Furthermore, for someone with supposedly complete access to his brain he sure in the hell acts like an immature child. He's like a carbon copy of Shawn Spencer from Psych.

    Limitless is Psych, but instead of the protagonist having an eidetic memory he has NZT. Boom, the entire premise of Limitless.

    1. I'm not sure why you felt the need to comment on a post noting positive things about Limitless with disagreement and negativity... but sure, it's Monday so I'll bite!

      You may not know this but I've actually watched the entire series of Psych and can say with certainty that while there are some similarities and shades of the kind of meta humor that Psych used, Limitless is definitely not a clone of the show.

      (As an aside, five episodes have aired so if you're judging the show, there are still two episodes left that you haven't seen.)

      Yeah, there are a lot of procedurals on television. And honestly, they're not unique. No story is -- every single story can be traced back to an earlier story. In college, my writing professors used to tell us this: that there are only a handful of plots in the entire written world. As a writer, your job is to tell the same story that people have been telling for centuries in a unique way.

      So even Psych -- which was a procedural -- follows certain formats of that genre. Yes, I absolutely loved Psych, but let's not pretend any series running on television right now is unique.

      Limitless is about crime-solving, but it's not ONLY about crime-solving. They don't use the crimes to fill up minutes -- they use them to illuminate what is happening in Brian Finch or Rebecca's lives. The cases are springboards for character growth and development, in a lot of the same ways that Psych's were for Shawn.

      Big difference though: Shawn was keeping his secret for entirely selfish reasons. Uh, remember WHY people thought he was a psychic in the first place? Yeah, he LIED SO HE WOULD NOT GET IN TROUBLE. He used his gifts to manipulate other people. There's no real way to get around that. Did he help people? Yup. Did he solve cases? Yup. Did he put away real bad guys? Yup. This is the excuse he uses on Jules in "Deez Nups," remember? He justifies lying by saying he did it to protect people. But really, the reason he lied in the first place was to protect himself.

      (Don't get me wrong, I LOVE Shawn but let's call a spade a spade on this one.)

      Meanwhile, while Brian is selfish in some ways, he's trapped in a web of lies -- he's caught because he tried to help his family. (Again, catch up. This is seriously fundamental in the fourth and fifth episodes.) He WANTS to tell people the truth and he doesn't want to live a duplicitous life in front of his family and father. But if he tells them the truth, he dooms them to death. So he keeps lying until he makes the decision to be honest with someone (which will happen in this week's episode), and is willing to pay the price for that.

      Shawn and Brian are radically different people in that regard.

      Honestly, I'm sure this isn't going to convince you because you seem dead-set on your dislike of the show (which baffles me, again, as to why you felt the need to comment about how wrong I was, then?...), but I thought I would set the record straight as someone who loves both Psych and Limitless.