The Short, Beautiful Life of ‘Lookwell’, One of the Funniest Pilots of All Time
Normally, Brilliantly Canceled brings you the worst in TV, but with the spirit of giving quickly escaping the earth, only to lay dormant for the next 351 days, we decided to bring you something to get your 2013 off on the right foot.
With the New Year’s baby pushing the withered remains of 2012 into the annals of time, it’s important to reflect on how hopeless it’s always been for us, the TV-obsessed. The short-lived victories of returning favorites, like Arrested Development and seven seasons of the poorly-rated 30 Rock, keep droves of television viewers assuming that maybe, just maybe, there’s someone in TV land fighting the good fight. But while we’ve seen some good calls in the past, television is still a vast wasteland of unused potential, where good ideas take flight and careen into a cavern of unseen despair, only to have their remains excavated and put on display in that great cat sanctuary in the sky: the Internet.
Sitting somewhere atop a trash heap in the Internet’s collective garbage dump is a little pilot called Lookwell. Now, the show has a reputation for being one of the great-unsold pilots of our time, and I’m not here to convince you otherwise. Lookwell is among the funniest and most creative TV parodies of the past 25 years. From the opening shots of Adam West’s Ty Lookwell sitting in an audition for Happy Days: The Next Generation–wearing the obligatory leather jacket and pompadour helmet–to the craning shot of our hero shutting the book on another case, it fires on all cylinders, working both as a great comedy and a faithful parody of its subject. Lookwell is a show unlike any other, acting like an extended SNL sketch that works extraordinarily well, thanks in no small part to the writing team of SNL alums Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel, as well as a fantastic performance by TV’s most-eccentric Batman, Mr. Adam West.
Lookwell is a bit of a “what if?” for Adam West. What if Adam West never hung up the cowl? What if he heard every police siren as a call to arms? What if Adam West was an out of work actor unable to deal with the cancellation of his show, assumed the role of his most famous character, and took to the streets as a death-defying vigilante? Unfortunately, none of these things actually happened, so O’Brien and Smigel gave us the next best thing: a dramatization of Adam West’s elseworld adventures.
Lookwell takes place about twenty years after the fourth and final season of “Bannigan,” a run-of-the-mill ’70s police procedural and starring vehicle for Ty Lookwell (West). While “Bannigan” brought Lookwell international acclaim, an honorary badge from the local law enforcement, and the ability to put no good scum like you away for good, it didn’t do much further his career. Typecast as a hard-edged gumshoe, Lookwell resolves to teaching the art of acting, auditioning for roles meant for performers half his age, and solving the occasional mystery.
The blending of parody and the sad, slow walk towards complete mental collapse may have been the show’s undoing. In his one and only case, Lookwell finds himself ripping the lid off a stolen car ring centered out of an import rental lot. Lookwell worms his way into the case and begins putting pieces together based on findings and connections formed in his own mind. The plot never advances unless by accident, because Lookwell never acknowledges the facts. Smigel and O’Brien present an anti-plot with a protagonist who consistently stops the story dead its tracks to show off things like the show’s only sponsor, “Firm Pops: The Frozen Treat that Tightens Your Skin.” But even in an age that saw the successful relaunch of the Harry & The Hendersons brand, Lookwell’s quirks are exceptionally weird. Execs probably feared audiences would’ve confused the show for Brannigan or Maddox, or to a lesser extent Batman or Matlock.
The writers imbue Lookwell with such a loose understanding of our culture that Ty’s world seems built on Hollywood stereotypes, which in turn inform his characters’ backstories (another one of his unique talents: method acting). His disguises, generally 50 to 100 years outdated, show off how wonderfully out of touch he is, affording Ty the opportunity to show off his interpretation of a 1950s auto mechanic, a 1930s racecar driver named Dash Carlisle, and a 1920s hobo whose pillow is the street. With all these distractions and Ty’s own fading grip on reality, the show takes many, many detours, but man, are they funny.
So how could a show with two of TV’s best comedic minds behind it fail? It actually might be because Lookwell is too good. Smigel and O’Brien may be anti-plot, but they are uproariously funny. Every shot of this pitch-perfect parody nails its subject, with TV-mystery vet E.W. Swackhamer effortlessly recreating the look and feel he cultivated on Murder, She Wrote and Columbo. Since the show feels like a cop show rather than a comedy, the writers compensate for the show’s mismatched style by beefing of the script with a joke-a-minute premise that consistently delivers. West’s soft-spoken, hardheaded detective seems to foil each of the show’s obstacles with confidence and excitement.
Yet, in spite of his insistence on being wrong and obstructing justice and giving bad acting lessons and demonizing the homeless and racecar drivers with horrific stereotypes, Lookwell’s honesty and silky-smooth voice make him a likable anti-hero, and it’s that likability that drives the show. His earnestness eventually turned into timelessness, and while Lookwell is condemned to an eternity in TV-purgatory (read: YouTube), it was able to develop a cult fanbase thanks to comic book conventions and Trio’s fantastic Brilliant But Cancelled series (hey!). But alas, Lookwell was not meant for this world, because some things are just too beautiful for human consumption.
But don’t take my word for it, enjoy a nice skin-tightening episode on me:
Matt Schimkowitz is a writer, TV-watcher, and a world champion janitor and TV star. Like you, he enjoys the finer things in life: drinking from coconuts, the latest Italian vogue, and complaining about movies, music, and TV on the Internet. Find more writing about canceled TV shows on the Twittersphere.