Wednesday, 20 January 2016

Limitless - or limiting?

Warning! Danger, Will Robinson!
Here be SPOILERS for Limitless season 1!

Ah, Limitless. That show that I started to watch because the film had such a good premise (and execution). That show that developed into a screwball comedy \ detective mystery \ personality exploration \ reason for feeling better about your Tuesday night.

For those of you just joining us, the TV show begins a little while after the movie (of the same name) ended. Bradley Cooper’s character is still on his NZT pills (that unlock pretty much most of the brain, giving you instant access to all your memories, your random thoughts, your ability to put things together in a big picture, etc.). He’s now a Senator and running for President of the US. However, the new main character, poor wee Brian Finch, is a down-and-out, can’t-really-get-his-band-together bloke whose parents just want him to become something.

Cue a little accident with NZT pills and Brian experiences his entire brain for twelve hours. Of course the come-down afterwards is not as nice, but seeing as Senator Mora (Cooper) turns up and gives Brian a shot to stave off the withdrawal symptoms, things are looking up. Except the FBI want Brian to work with them, seeing as he’s the ‘only person who is naturally immune to the side-effects of NZT’. Brian can’t come clean to anyone, since Senator Mora has arranged, by virtue of his Vinnie Jones-like ‘assistant’ Colin Salmon (well cast, by the way), to make Brian’s poor dad all better again. A kidney transplant and a free live-in nurse later, and Brian realises he’s stuck. He has to do as he’s told - work with the FBI and prevent them from working out that Mora is controlling his own supply of NZT - as well as immunity shots.

What this crafty back story gives the writing team of the show is this: as many whacked-out ways for Brian to use his suddenly brilliant brain to solve ‘crimes’ as he can. This could have been left to meander as a simple police procedural with yet another ‘cool’ twist on it. However, the show is turning out to be something quite different. Where the film had Mora actually sitting down and writing the novel he’d always wanted, leaving you to wonder if he had changed due to his exposure to the drug, the TV show has Brian being more Brian than he had ever Brian’d before. He’s obviously fun-loving, likes his bong, music, and just chilling and not really offending anyone ever because that’s like rude, right? And it’s clearly a waste of time and energy that could be put to listening to some really cool music or doing something else just as fun. From the pilot episode we see the gleeful, childlike (not childish) side to Brian, and while he does have some trouble with other parts of himself taking on other personas (the Marlon Brando rebel was a good choice) and trying to argue cases with Fun!Brian, he largely keeps it together. This seems to be a testament to his will and ‘speaks to his character’, as my mate would say.

What the show does is provide crimes almost as a back-drop for his problems, instead of focusing on the actual crime as a reason for the show. And the crime of the week isn’t always a crime of the week; even when it is, it swiftly develops into something that is much bigger than it seemed at the initial outset. Take for example a massive manhunt that a famous profiler had been working on for years. This episode could have been about how Brian gradually realises who the murderer is and how to find \ get him arrested. But the writers are smarter than that - after they’ve spent the episode teaser building up how difficult a case this will be for everyone concerned, they have Brian solve it in a few minutes using the case notes and Google. What that kicks off is a much more elaborate tale, and in the process, leads to a very tense period between commercial breaks as Brian must race to protect Senator Mora’s secret whilst still working on the case at hand - and without arousing suspicion.

This show has made me laugh out loud - quite a few times - and marvel at Brian’s energy and happiness. He feels like a very harmless, very clean person - and by that I mean there’s no baggage to his life. He’s not yet another gritty, acerbic detective with a failed marriage or two and a shitty existence, who is only still working for the police because otherwise he’d be getting arrested for the kind of crap he gets up to at work. Yes, he’s worried about what happens when the FBI eventually find out why he’s ‘immune’ to the side-effects of NZT, but at the same time he’s stoked he’s helping people by catching ‘bad guys’ and using NZT to do all the cool things he can think of. And he is seeing and doing incredible things - all the time.

Which brings us to tonight’s episode - number thirteen (of season one, allowing for Time Travel Tuesday and you lot reading this long after January 2016). We have a serial rapist, murderer, and all-around evil bastard. But Brian’s subconscious (which has manifested itself in many varied and wonderful ways throughout the series so far) balks at the horrendous crime scene that he’s confronted with. A naked dead woman tied up and covered in blood, one finger cut off, obviously having struggled and fought for life - there’s something in Brian that can’t look at these things, can’t process a scene so ugly and horrific. So his subconscious (a dinosaur, no less) decides that words like ‘rapist’ and ‘murderer’ are replaced with happy euphemisms. Rewind the scene and now the other FBI agents are talking about how the poor woman was the result of a cowboys-and-indians game, how she was hugged so hard she went off to play on that awesome farm out in the sunshine. This continues for the entire episode - and as Brian is in the scene, we hear the euphemisms used by everyone he comes into contact with.

During the episode it’s hilarious - people saying things like ‘she was tied up and tickled until she couldn’t laugh any more’ with absolutely straight faces, the kind of expression you could use to win at poker, as if they're all trying so hard to get that Golden Globe. But once you’ve switched off the TV and tidied up your dinner plates etc., you’re left with an uneasy feeling. What the writers have done is inadvertently (one would hope) taken the details of several women having been murdered in the worst way, and given it a happy spin to make it almost light, fluffy - not serious. Sure, people don’t want that level of horror from something as happy and daffy as ‘Limitless’ - but why sugar-coat it in that way? Why use these crimes at all if you’re not going to treat them with dignity and respect? (I’m sure there are other high level crimes an FBI agent would follow.) A ‘serial hugger’ is not the way I want to hear myself referring to these people - not when ‘hug’ is used to replace ‘rape’. Yes, for the purpose of the episode I did find it amusing - and yes, the perpetrator was found and convicted. But where was the satisfaction at having done a good job and stopped more women from being victims of the same crime? The episode chose instead to focus on how Brian skilfully avoided being corralled by a guest star into collaborating with him to corner a huge book deal. Normally Brian is much more relieved that more people aren’t going to get hurt. But this time? Not really a mention.

He had a lot going on, this episode. But I still think a little moment to think about the victims - even a throw-away line such as ‘it’s terrible I couldn’t have solved this thing before the second victim’, or ‘at least now he can’t do this again’. But nothing.

Still - the episode did its job. The writers did theirs; they produced a nasty string of crimes and managed to make them more palatable to a dinner-time audience in a fun, light-hearted way that still managed to show - through Rebecca, the real FBI agent - how horrible life can be if you choose to let it.

Maybe that was the real message: Brian solved the crimes, had the correct bad guy arrested, went through all of the evidence even though it was personally harrowing. He did it by choosing to shape his own reality, by doing something as simple as calling something a different name, or seeing it in a different light. It didn’t stop him feeling the horror of it, but it kept him from getting bogged down in evil (something that shows like The Following have failed to do at times) and helped him get it done faster and cleaner. So was it really a bad thing that his subconscious ‘made light’ of the rapes and murders? (And was that what he was really doing? After all, he recognised and felt how awful the crimes were but couldn’t process that level of evil. He understood all too well how serious they were - but he couldn’t face it.) If this approach got the crimes solved faster before the bad guy could strike again, wasn’t it helping, rather than simply reducing the documented crimes to jokey descriptions about playing air guitar and names of ice cream flavours?

I’ve done it again. I’ve made a mountain out of a molehill. Suffice it to say, I enjoyed the episode, and now that I’ve had a chance to think it through, I don’t feel uneasy at all. Brian’s defence mechanism kicked in and helped him solve the heinous crimes. And that’s all there is to it. Perhaps I should do this more in my own life.

On a side note, I can’t wait for next week’s episode.

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