Neil Burger’s 2011 film “Limitless,” starring Bradley Cooper, was praised for its inventive visual style, among other things. CBS’ new paranoid thriller of the same name hopes to continue, and build upon, the movie’s visual panache, while also offering a story that’s not beholden it.
“The freedom to literalize thought is at the heart of the show,” showrunner Craig Sweeny told International Business Times.
In a nutshell, “Limitless” is about a drug called NZT, which enhances users’ brain power by giving them access to 100 percent of their brains. In the movie, this miracle pill enables a nobody played by Bradley Cooper to go from being a struggling writer to an actual candidate for the U.S. Senate.
On the show, the brain-enhancing powers of NZT also change the life of series protagonist Brian Finch (“Greek” alum Jake McDorman), but instead of offering him freedom, he becomes the tool of two parties with potentially differing interests.
Sweeny and his team are interested in finding new and fun ways of depicting what it’s like to be on NZT. For example, in the pilot, Finch imagines a family tree in his head as he’s working through a problem, an effect that VFX supervisor Jason Zimmerman had fun working on because it had meaning beyond just serving as eye candy.
“It’s revealing what it’s like to be inside the head of someone on NZT,” Zimmerman said. “It actually has to aid in telling the story.”
Sweeny was drawn to this show not only because he liked the movie, but also because he thought the pill created many storytelling opportunities.
“I think what appealed to me was that the MacGuffin that drives the movie, a pill, is an object that’s out there,” Sweeny said. “It can be anywhere and in anyone’s hands.”
When NZT falls into Brian’s hands, he’s able to do extraordinary things like solve a “House”-like medical mystery without a medical degree. He crosses paths with two FBI agents played by Jennifer Carpenter ("Dexter") and Hill Harper ("Covert Affairs"), who recognize he's an asset and recruit him to use his enhanced cognitive abilities to solve crimes. Unbeknownst to them, Brian also answers to presidential hopeful and NZT user Sen. Eddie Mora (Bradley Cooper), who plans to use Brian to further a mysterious agenda.
“What we’re doing with the serialized element of the show is exploring why Eddie Mora wants Brian in the FBI and what he’s going to ask of him,” Sweeny said. “[This] feeds into the larger questions of who knows about NZT, where it comes from and, of the people who know about it, what are their goals and how do they think it’ll best be employed?"
Over the course of the season, which will balance the show's procedural and serialized elements, we’ll see Brian struggle with adjusting to his new life as an FBI consultant and a pawn, and dealing with knowing both parties might not have his best interests in heart. This uneasiness is also being mirrored in the show’s look.
“I think the greatest challenge for me was to define a visual strategy that conveyed the shifting mental state of Brian through his environment,” production designer Sarah Frank said. “I was looking through the locations and the sets and working with modulations of intensity, color, texture and really working with the interplay of claustrophobic and expansive spaces."
The FBI set on the show features a lot of glass and structural lines. Frank said she went in this direction because she wanted to highlight how Brian is no longer a private person and wanted to give the office a institutional feel. Within the FBI set, there's the file room, which is where Brian goes to escape the transparency and coldness of the FBI and to work on projects related to the case. In there, he's surrounded himself with computers, gadgets and word cloud, and it's someplace where he can fully enjoy the NZT. There's also his safe house, which is where he feels the safest and most comfortable.
"I think in both the safehouse -- which has this warm environment -- and file room he feels comfort and it lets him release the NZT," Frank said, noting that McDorman has also had input in what she and her team use to fill out these sets.
“Limitless” premieres on CBS on Tuesday, Sept. 22, at 10 p.m., ET/PT