Gogglebox and Limitless reviewed: watching the watchers

Gogglebox armchair critics Mick and Di. Photo: suppliedIt is perhaps a sign of the times that the ultimate expression of television entertainment is a program that captures people engaged in the dark art of watching television. If television is some kind of dark mirror to our lives, then what do we make of Gogglebox (Lifestyle Channel, Wednesday, 9:30pm and Ten, Thursday, 9:10pm)?

The brilliance and elegance of this series lies in the simplicity and relatability of its premise: people are filmed watching television, capturing every emotion from exhilaration to boredom. It’s a format that makes some broadcasters edgy, largely because it can deliver a crushing verdict on their work. Rather like picking one student to read another’s essay out loud in class.

What makes this particular iteration of the format so beautiful is that it more than lives up to its British antecedent. (The series is based on an established, and very good, television series from the UK.)

And yet it is not relatability alone that gets Gogglebox over the line.

The first series established a broad suite of great characters – Mick and Di, Lee and Keith, the Kidds, the Jacksons and others – for the audience to observe while they react to their own television viewing off-camera.

The casting here is about diversity of perspective and, vitally, a very present sense of humour. Without the latter, Gogglebox would collapse in a heap.

It also speaks to the universality of television itself. Were the Gogglebox format about capturing reactions to art, or music, or theatre, it might not have the same impact. There is something strangely universal about the warm, flickering glow of the television set, though as a society we don’t like to acknowledge that.

In that sense, the show acknowledges that we are all television critics, though we do not all write for this illustrious journal. So what then, would the Goggleboxers make of Limitless (Ten, Sunday, 8:30pm)‎, a rather ambitious attempt to retool the film of the same name for the small screen?

You would hope they’d like it. On view, it’s not too bad. Film-to-television adaptations are perhaps the riskiest (and least successful) of all with the possible exception of comic book-to-theatre adaptations. (Though the thought of Giganta: The One Woman Show is a tantalising one to ponder.)

Limitless began life as the book The Dark Fields, which was used to create the film. But rather than simply reboot the film’s world with new actors playing old characters and a slightly tired, stretchy do-over of the plot, the television adaptation rather brilliantly enters the film’s narrative space and, for the most part, leaves it intact.

Jake McDorman stars as Brian Finch, a man who discovers the near-limitless potential offered by the drug NZT-48. In the shadows is Eddie Mora, played by Bradley Cooper, who was the lead character of the film. So rather than simply copy the film, the series moves the story forward, brings in a new focus but keeps Cooper’s Mora as a kind of mentor figure, now with an agenda of his own.

There are powerful cautionary messages built into the series premise, notably that nothing comes without a price. NZT-48 has side effects, so every leap forward comes with risks. There seems to be a hint of a conspiracy surrounding the drug and those whose lives it has touched. But, as with everything in television, all will be revealed, eventually.

Ultimately it takes a certain kind of intangible balance to make everything work. That is perhaps thanks to writer Craig Sweeny and director Mark Webb. With the subtlest​ of changes, Limitless could have been cliched dreck of the sort so loved by the American television schedule. Struck correctly, it is television’s equivalent of the middle bowl of porridge: just right.

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