The myth that we only use a small percentage of our brain’s capacity has been debunked over and over again, but that doesn’t mean it’s not still a well-trodden trope in pop culture. Scarlett Johansson unlocked 100 percent of her brain in Lucy and used her newfound superpowers to beat up human traffickers. Nicolas Cage taught Jay Baruchel how to use 100 percent of his brain to develop his wizard skills in The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. And in the 2011 movie Limitless, a designer drug named NZT allowed Bradley Cooper to unlock the full potential of his mind, giving him a superhuman memory and powers of deduction.
Limitless the TV series swaps Bradley Cooper for Jake McDorman, and although the series is less of a reboot and more of a continuation of the movie’s story, the two heroes aren’t all that different. Cooper played Eddie Morra, a slacker/aspiring writer, while McDorman stars as Brian Finch, a slacker/aspiring musician.
When we first meet Brian Finch in the pilot, he’s already high on NZT — dodging traffic and trying to outrun some scary-looking men in suits. Even though Brian is our hero, we still get a glimpse of Cooper’s face within the first 30 seconds of the episode, as Brian dashes past a campaign poster for the re-election of Senator Edward Morra. (Fun fact: Morra’s campaign photo is lifted directly from the original Limitless poster.) Brian manages to lose the suits, but as he ducks into the subway to make his escape, he’s stopped at gunpoint by FBI agent Rebecca Harris (Jennifer Carpenter from Dexter). Instead of shooting him, she hesitates, and she watches, dumbfounded, as he calmly jumps onto the tracks and stands in front of an incoming train.
That’s when a perfectly timed voiceover from Brian cuts in, helpfully explaining exactly who he is and how he got here. It turns out that he’s not a bad guy, he promises. Growing up, he fronted an up-and-coming band with his friend Eli, but their big break never came, and Eli dropped out. So now, he’s stuck explaining to his family that he’s not in a band — it’s a “project” — and he’s working on an album that doesn’t exist. To make matters worse, his father’s suffering from a mysterious illness, and his only job is a temporary gig at a big bank, where he’s tasked with filing 22,000 personnel forms.
It’s there that he runs into his old friend Eli, and the former-musician-turned-Wall-Street-hotshot takes pity on poor, sad Brian, offering him a small clear pill to “jump-start” his life. When the pill (finally) kicks in, he’s suddenly conversing with himself, and he finds himself recalling every thought he’s ever had. “The scales fell from my eyes,” Brian explains. “Your brain is a miracle, but it’s not efficient. There’s a maze inside everyone’s head, a labyrinth of missed connections and untapped potential. But now suddenly, I had access to every single brain cell.”
When Brian’s on NZT, the viewer sees the world through his eyes, as the dull, gray colors of before turn vibrant, with a distinct orange tint. When he’s trying to work out a problem, words and images float across the screen, Sherlock-style, and he talks with multiple versions of himself. After he knocks out the two-week filing job in two hours, he wanders the city, playing guitar and playing chess. When he runs out of hot dog vendors to recommend Malcolm Gladwell books to, he decides to tackle a much bigger problem: his father’s illness.
By the time he comes down from the NZT — with a hell of a hangover — he’s figured out that his father has hemochromatosis, a hereditary and commonly misdiagnosed disease. Surprise, surprise, Brian’s right (his tiny smile when his suspicions are confirmed is hilarious), but it means his father will need a liver transplant ASAP. Having solved one insurmountable problem, he’s now faced with another one — which means he needs another pill, stat.
His quest leads him to Eli’s apartment, except Eli’s dead, and his money clip filled with pills is missing. By the time Brian thinks back to their stoner days and remembers that Eli always keep a stash taped into the inside of his guitar, the FBI are kicking down his door. Even sober, Brian proves that he’s not totally useless (good call, grabbing Eli’s cell phone), and by the time the FBI agents break in, Brian’s second pill has already kicked in, and he’s long gone.
The pilot was directed by Marc Webb (The Amazing Spider-Man), and it’s an appropriate choice, considering how much the episode feels like a superhero origin story. Watching Brian effortlessly drop from a fire escape feels a lot like Peter Parker testing out his newfound web-slinging abilities. The only difference is that Brian doesn’t actually have any physical superpowers; instead, he just knows exactly how to maximize the strength he already has.
He uses that strength to effortlessly calculate an escape route, and we’re back where we started, facing off against Agent Harris. (Again, there’s a nice switch between the gray/blue colors of the regular scenes and the warm orange of Brian’s NZT perspective.) As the two of them stare each other down, something in his eyes unnerves her, and he makes his escape, calmly waiting for a hurtling subway train to stop inches from his face.
Cut to Agent Harris’ office, where she and her FBI colleagues try to piece together what the hell just happened and how Brian wasn’t smushed by an enormous subway car. Her boss (Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio) gives some very helpful exposition, explaining that in 2011 (hey, that’s the year the movie came out!), the FBI picked up a dealer carrying a drug he called NZT-48. Recognizing its potential as a cognitive enhancement, the FBI started a test program, recruiting volunteers from within its own ranks, but the program was shut down after the “first two fatalities.” So the question is: Who’s Brian, and how is he connected to NZT?