What would you do if you could access 100% of your brain? If you’re Scarlett Johansson in the title role of Lucy, you engage in a Kubrickian odyssey of the mind. But if you’re Bradley Cooper as (really) struggling writer Eddie Morra in Limitless, you become a financial wizard with political aspirations while at the same time attempt to prevent your life from spinning out of control in various dangerous ways. You also serve as the launching point for a TV series.
In that 2011 film, Morra ingests a mysterious pill – known as NZT – which unlocks his mind and sets his life off on a very different path. In this season’s TV version, Morra – now a senator with an eye towards the Oval Office – finds someone he can use to make a difference in the world in the form of Brian Finch (Greek and American Sniper’s Jake McDorman). In a nutshell, Brian (taking a daily dose of the pill), who has been framed for his friend’s murder, finds himself working alongside FBI agent Rebecca Harris (Dexter’s Jennifer Carpenter) in what evolved into the most unorthodox procedural on television.
As the show wraps up its first season, McDorman, Carpenter and series executive producer/showrunner Craig Sweeney reflect on how things have changed, and where they might be going.
Craig Sweeney (executive producer/showrunner): I was a fan of the movie and when I sat down to adapt it for TV, I asked myself what the main elements were that attracted me to the property. The first was that it was very much an ultra-grounded superhero movie. The second was the sense of style and wit and finesse that the movie had in terms of the visuals. I thought it was very mischievous and I responded to that. I wanted to capture that on a week-to-week basis. The last thing was the central idea of somebody whose life is turned 180 degrees by what is essentially a magic potion, which is in this case are these pills. Those were all the things – even as I knew he was going to be with the FBI or what he was going to be doing – I knew I wanted to capture.
A Continuation, Not A Remake
The corporate decision-making of network television is oftentimes as procedural as the shows they air, and the normal process for turning a successful film into a TV series is to essentially remake the film with new actors and go from there. With Limitless, it was decided to try something different.
Sweeney: I didn’t know how unique it was at the beginning, because, to me, the MacGuffin of the show are these pills that are infinitely portable and can be in anybody’s hands. I’m not sure why we’d want to saddle an actor with trying to recreate Bradley Cooper’s role when you could just move on and acknowledge the events of the movie. And say all of this happened, but we’re following our own different story in a different corner of the same universe.
Jake McDorman (actor, “Brian Finch”): I’m always a fan of things that expand the universe of something instead of trying to reboot it. If I were playing the television version of Eddie Morra, I probably wouldn’t have wanted to do the series. I liked the movie and I think it established a really solid universe, so I wouldn’t want to try to do the TV edit of anything. The fact that it just took that story and advanced it by a year, four years, whatever it is, when we come into the pilot and we actually get to see where Eddie Morra is now, that was awesome and a really exciting aspect to it.
Hey, Is That Bradley Cooper?
McDorman: I’ve been a fan of Bradley Cooper since before I worked with him in American Sniper. The fact that he was willing to extend the movie into a series, not just from an executive producer standpoint, but also as an actor, to continue his storyline from the film, that was a real big element of the show that was very enticing.
Sweeney: Bradley’s involvement was just an enormous bonus. I didn’t really believe that he was going to do so. Not that he is a dishonest person, but he’s a movie star. When he showed up on set and I saw him on the monitor, I was, like, "Wow, he really is going to be in our show. There he was and for people who are fans of the movie, it really continued the movie in a satisfying way. What’s weird is that we created this show where it feels like one of the biggest stars in the world is in half of the episodes, even though he’s only in four of them.
Casting Finch & Harris
Sweeney: For me, with Jake it was very much you know it when you see it kind of thing. I didn’t know his work, I hadn’t watched Greek or his other big credits. What happened was that our casting director mentioned that there was a guy who had been in American Sniper with Bradley. We brought it up to Bradley and he thought Jake would be great. I just wasn’t sure, based on the kind of roles he was playing, if he was right for Brian. We set up a meeting and I could see right away that this guy has what really differentiated the character from Eddie. That would be somebody who has an inherent kindness and goodness and genuineness. I saw that Jake had all those things. Now, 22 episodes in, I couldn’t imagine anybody else playing that part.
McDorman: Right off the bat it was apparent that this would be an opportunity to play two characters, or two versions of the same character. You have Brian when he’s on NZT and then Brian regular. Obviously all the people involved with the show were really enticing. I was a fan of the movie, I’ve been a fan of Bradley since before I worked with him in American Sniper.
Sweeney: The thing we were really trying to get our heads around when we cast Jennifer was that for the pilot she was seven and a half months pregnant at the beginning and eight and a half months pregnant at the end. We had this actress who really did a great read, and she is so gifted in taking up the nuances of whatever material you give her. So it wasn’t a question of can you play this talent wise, it was the question of was she going to give birth in the middle of the pilot? We talked to other people about it and this is apparently something that happens often in pilots. Julie Bowen was very pregnant during the Modern Family pilot. Eventually we developed strategies to cover it up and it obviously worked out. I think Jennifer brings an enormous sense of intelligence and integrity and makes you feel like you’d watch a show focused on her. Even if she wasn’t matched up with this incredible character of Brian, I think she’s very compassionate. Brian is definitely the focal point of the show and the audience surrogate, but I think any sense of compassion and caring for him makes the audience in turn more intrigued about her character.
Jennifer Carpenter (actress, Rebecca Harris): Because I was eight months pregnant, I was thinking of my family first, but they made a ton of space for my son to come to work, and it felt very nurturing. It was after I had weighed out those aspects of it that I started to look at the caliber of people putting this together. If the show was going to look anything like the pilot, then I wanted to be a part of it. I’m glad that I did. It’s been very challenging, but worth it.
Playing With Format
Anyone watching the pilot for Limitless could have easily had a flashback to Josh Holloway’s 2014 series Intelligence in that the procedural set up was almost the same. However, it barely took any time for Limitless to prove that formula was not something it was interested in, constantly playing with the show’s format.
McDorman: I really enjoy hearing people’s opinions who watched the first episode and stuck with it. It’s apparent that it could shift out of that role right in the second episode. There’s an element of comedy that was put into the second episode, and it was apparent in parts of the pilot, but it wasn’t enough. There was this overwhelming procedural format. Craig said he really didn’t want that to happen. He always said that Brian has a rebellious nature to him as a character anyway, and in many ways since the show is being told through his point of view, we want to rebel against the classic standard procedural format. And actually call it out and make fun of it as much as we can.
Carpenter: I have to admit, I was worried about it. They were offering a new show and you kind of commit to the unknown. I wasn’t terrible excited about it being a procedural, but it is new and it works. That’s a tough order these days, to not only raise the bar but sometimes reset it. It’s a really challenging arena right now with the taste for action and suspense and thrills. It’s hard to push the boundaries.
Sweeney: In our first episode after the pilot, we had a lot of mischievous elements while being embedded in a traditional, procedural structure. We had characters singing directly at the camera, we had Genghis Khan appearing and taking a sword swipe at the viewer. We were getting very impish very early. It was something that audiences were responding to; it’s what I love doing about the show. And the more positive response we got to it, the more we leaned into it until we started doing truly outlandish episodes, like an episode-long homage to Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. At the same time, it is a bit of a struggle because we’re trying to do something structurally unique. What we want each week is to deliver something that you’ve never seen on TV before, whether that be a visual or a structural trick so that we’re not settling into too much of a routine.
It’s An NZT Kind Of World
The NZT drug colors much of Limitless, whether it’s through the characters or the storylines. There have been personal journeys, explorations of what happens when those pills hit the streets and even one instance where Rebecca takes it and for the first time gets a taste of what the world is like for Brian. All told, it’s allowed for things to evolve in a variety of ways.
Sweeney: I think that Brian as a character, without losing anything that we love about him, is more of a man as the season has progressed. He’s a little less defiant of his surroundings and by the end of the season will choose whether or not to be at the FBI rather than being forced to be on the FBI. He’s come on quite a journey, and so have we as writers. I guess the biggest thing we’ve learned is the boundaries of how much experimentation is too much for what is still essentially a mainstream audience. How far we can go without losing people. We’ve learned that just by virtue of the feedback we’ve gotten.
Carpenter: I’m incredibly impressed with the writers, but with Rebecca it feels like I just sort of ride the current. There aren’t a lot of major hurdles that come up for her that truly flips the trajectory of who she is. It’s just knowing the baseline aspects that I know to be true about her, and then filtering the information as it comes week to week. Something that’s happened naturally between me and Jake is a friendship has grown, and luckily we have been able to show that on camera. It’s been beneficial, certainly, to us and I think to the show as well. Story wise, I guess the one exception was when Rebecca took NZT. I got a taste of what Jakes does every single week. I’m there, right along side him for most of the days. But the fact that he is able to retain that information and manipulate it in a way that he can spin it, and put his button on it… I enjoyed having a taste of it, but it is mental and physical gymnastics. He’s just better suited for it.
McDorman: Following Eddie Morra as a protagonist in the movie – and I guess I didn’t really notice this right off the bat because you have such a fun time seeing how far he can go – something that Craig pointed out was that the first thing he does in the film is sleep with someone’s wife. And he’s right. You’re kind of rooting for him even though most of his actions are self-serving. He’s got this pill and he’s so desperate to not go back to the version of himself that he was at the beginning of the movie, so dependent on the effects of NZT, he’ll literally drink somebody’s blood to get it.
Brian, although he’s introduced to the pill in a very similar kind of way to Eddie, that’s where the similarities stop. Brian’s somebody who took the pill and immediately wanted to help hs dad. Although he had this moment of joy, wish fulfillment and joyfulness of being able to do literally anything he’s always wanted to do, at his core he wanted to use this ability to help his dad. In fact, and we’ve talked about this, had he not gotten framed for his friend’s murder, his moral compass is strong enough to be, like, “After this, I’m done. This is great. I ran into a friend. He gave me a pill. It opened up a world of possibilities. I’m smart enough now to save my father and if I can do that, that’s given my life a whole new meaning and enough to go into the rest of my life with wherever that takes me.” Of course, he gets framed by the FBI and now has to use the pill to prove his innocence and gets wrapped up with Senator Morra. But Brian as a person is at the other end of the spectrum from Eddie Morra. He’s in a situation now where he’s got to take this pill every single day. Inevitably that kind of perspective is going to change your moral compass. It’s going to change you in ways that, from Eddie Morra’s perspective, are for the great good and from Brian’s perspecitive it’s you losing who you are. Brian’s desperate to cling to who he was before this pill and Eddie Morra couldn’t be more determined to get rid of who he is before this pill. I hope those ideologies over the course of the series will collide in some place at some point.
It might be a little presumptuous to discuss season two considering that the show hasn’t been officially renewed, but everyone involved is relatively confident that their adventures will continue, and they most definitely have considered what might be on the horizon.
Sweeney: I’m a big believer that season one of Limitless was about Brian being under the thumb of Eddie Morra and [his muscle] Sands, and finding his place in the FBI. Season two is a highly new and different threat. Bradley Cooper will still be on the show, but in a slightly different capacity. An entirely new and different thread will emerge, so it will essentially be the same characters in a new chapter. Personally, I think the “big bad” model of storytelling that Buffy The Vampire Slayer used, and so did The Shield, is very effective for long order TV.
Carpenter: In order for me to get where I would like to go in the series, Brian has to go somewhere else. I would like to see the week-to-week move into something with a little more weight and something new. I get that we are capturing the bad guys again and again, but with 100% use of your brain, I’d like to see us address more, if that makes sense. More on a global scale than locally.
McDorman: Craig’s been pretty tight-lipped about season two. I really think, though, there’s something to be said about the results of taking NZT every single day over the length of this first season. I know Brian’s desperate to have it not change who he is and he’s accomplished that. However, what I will say is that by going the great lengths he has to go through, episode after episode, to catch somebody, or to help the FBI facilitate their mission, he’s gotten a global perspective. I can’t imagine that for too much longer he’ll think the FBI is really the best place to make change and help people. He’s peaked behind the curtain of the stock market in one episode. He’s talked about space defense technology and how the United States is falling behind compared to other countries. It’s not like he doesn’t get perspective through those things. I’m not saying he’ll be going a little more renegade or off the beaten path, but I think it would be really cool if he did.