Supercult: Looking Back at What Lookwell Might Have Been
Supercult profiles the obscure, the offbeat, and the feverishly celebrated pieces of comedy which deserve more recognition.
Through sheer determination, unflappable intuition, and testicular fortitude, our hero finally gets his man. Another case closes as the tough-as-nails detective tosses the petty street thug over to awaiting officers and a pair of steel bracelets. The perp struggles against his restraints and demands a lawyer. With a steely glare, our hero sneers, “You can call the Supreme Court for all I care.” His face hardens. “You’re gonna do time, Leron. Hard time.”
The show: Bannigan. The star: Ty Lookwell. His job: Keeping the streets clean while maintaining a good sense of his “who.”
In 1991, actor Adam West breathed life into the role of former TV star Ty Lookwell as well as the pitch-perfect script from youthful scribes Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien. But the pilot aired on NBC in July, opposite 60 Minutes, and was given zero marketing. Without a sizable audience — or even a minuscule one — the amateur gumshoe and his unique brand of protocol died a quick and unjust death after only one episode.
But if there were any real justice in this world, we would’ve seen at least eight seasons of Lookwell.
Since airing nearly 20 years ago, Lookwell has circulated as an eBay bootleg and YouTube link, earning devoted fans and a reputation as one of the best failed TV pilots ever made. It was featured in the now-defunct Trio network’s Brilliant But Canceled series and eventually led to live screenings at Un-Cabaret featuring interviews with Smigel and O’Brien.
Executive produced by Lorne Michaels, the series would have chronicled a washed-up TV detective looking for acting work while trying to solve actual criminal cases in his free time. (He has a lot of it, he warns.) With arguably the greatest casting choice in the history of stage and screen, the part was written specifically with Adam West in mind. Watching West absorb the part, savoring every delusional line of dialogue as the self-absorbed protagonist, it’s hard to imagine anyone else playing Lookwell so effortlessly.
Truly everything West had done prior to the role was in preparation for it.
Aside from the script, the show has the look and feel of a weekly crime series. Veteran TV director E.W. Swackhamer — who helmed both broad comedies and cop dramas — shot Lookwell as if it was another episode of Columbo or Murder, She Wrote. Single camera, no laugh track, no harsh studio lights. If NBC executives were worried about audiences mistaking it for a drama, no wonder it never made it to episode two.
Even the writing style is largely devoid of traditional gut-buster pratfalls and punchlines. At its wackiest, Lookwell’s humor relies on a hobo getup or a “prison trust fall,” but those moments are brief and take a back seat to the dialogue and characterization.
In the opening scene, Smigel and O’Brien establish everything you need to know about Lookwell’s personality. He speaks from a position of sage authority despite auditioning for the same role as actors one-third his age. He doesn’t falter when being mistaken for one of a dozen other TV detectives from the ’60s and ’70s, presumably having made the distinction countless times before. The half-recognition alone is worthy of his esteem.
But cracks in his conceit begin to show when describing the original run of Bannigan to two gushing young actors. “Of course we could’ve gone a fourth season, but I felt my character had said everything he had to say.”
One fan asks, “How did the network feel?”
Lookwell replies, “Similar.”
Throughout the pilot, we see glimmers of clarity beneath that thick layer of hubris. Once Lookwell vacates the protective throng of sycophantic struggling actors, he’s forced to face the cold indifference from actual cops and “working-class minds.” Which is probably why he’s more comfortable leading a young actors workshop.
The only student able to puncture this shield from reality is Jason, played by future director of In the Bedroom and Little Children Todd Field. Jason is able to see through Lookwell’s facade and periodically point out his errors in judgment. Lookwell, however, never gives him the satisfaction of admitting defeat. But why should he, when he’s able to persuade Jason to do his bidding through relentless tenacity and charm?
Besides the impeccable West, Field is the standout among an exceptional supporting cast. He nails the looks of frustration, confusion, and resignation during his rocky alliance with Lookwell and plays the part beyond just a simple foil. It would’ve been an amazing relationship to see develop season after season, but within a single episode, it’s a testament to the ability of Smigel and O’Brien to pull that off in just a few scenes.
In a little over 22 minutes, the two writers — barely in their thirties — gave Adam West a role of a lifetime and became a dynamic duo themselves. Lookwell is so dense with layered wit and understated humor, every subtle gag can’t be fully appreciated in a single viewing.
The antiquated disguises and pseudonyms. Lookwell’s knowledge of only one Shakespeare passage. The always at-the-ready headshot. Francis Ford Coppola eating during a phone call. The constant chin waddle tap. The banner at the homeless benefit. “Maybe Bob Conrad didn’t take his honorary badge seriously, but I do!”
Lookwell’s hasty cancellation is a tremendous loss, but the trade-off isn’t without reward. Robert Smigel and Conan O’Brien have each subsequently produced two decades full of stellar comedy: Late Night, The Simpsons, TV Funhouse, The Dana Carvey Show, and a slew of memorable Saturday Night Live sketches. Had the pilot been picked up, all that work would have been at risk.
But given how enjoyable Lookwell is, it’s easy to wonder if it was worth it.