In 1991, Saturday Night Live writers and future Late Night collaborators Conan O’Brien and Robert Smigel wrote a pilot for NBC. Titled Lookwell, it starred Adam West as Ty Lookwell, a washed-up actor who played the title character on the fictional cop drama Bannigan. Once given an honorary detective’s badge by the Los Angeles Police Department, Lookwell believes he can keep solving crimes in the real world long after his show left the airwaves. And while the long-suffering Detective Kennery of the LAPD just wants to keep Lookwell out of trouble before he ruins actual cases, Lookwell is enabled in his delusion by his easily impressed acting students—who spend most of their class time watching Bannigan reruns and letting Lookwell wax lyrical about the craft.
NBC passed on the pilot, airing it once in the summer of 1991, where it finished dead last in the ratings. Lookwell has since earned a reputation in comedy circles as one of the all-time great failed pilots, a brilliant premise too damn weird to ever make it to series. The precise reason Lookwell didn’t get more of a chance from NBC remains unclear—in a 2004 interview with The A.V. Club, Smigel suggested the show was a victim of network politics, losing support after the departure of chairman Brandon Tartikoff—but the general sense from O’Brien and Smigel is that the instant cancellation was just as well. Simply put, the pilot squeezed every conceivable joke out of the premise, and the two had no idea how they would have written a second episode, let alone a full series. Lookwell has a fantastic premise—but it’s also an impossible one. As O’Brien observed in 2013, “Lookwell just wasn’t supposed to be a show. I’m not sure it could’ve been a show.”
Watching Lookwell now, it’s hard to disagree with that assessment. The pilot is a brilliant exercise in mounting comic absurdity, but the show suggests no interest in plot or character. Ty Lookwell remains completely insulated from reality, not once doubting that his role in his self-created little drama is to solve the case and save the day. The other characters either totally reject Lookwell’s mad theories and paper-thin disguises or, in the case of his acting students, go along with his fantasies for no particular reason beyond the fact that they appear to be just as dense as he is. (The slight exception is the skeptical acting student Jason, played by future Little Children director Todd Field, but even he isn’t given much to do beyond voice occasional doubts.)
Lookwell makes zero headway on solving the case of the stolen cars until the very end, which uses a throwaway line to resolve the mystery. The whole thing is just utterly arch. That isn’t inherently a bad thing: Lookwell works wonderfully as a 22-minute-long, glorified comedy sketch, but there’s little here to suggest O’Brien and Smigel could have converted their premise into a storytelling engine capable of sustaining multiple episodes, let alone seasons.
Yet this TV season, there’s a new comedy that suggests the opposite. On The Grinder, Rob Lowe is Dean Sanderson, a probably washed-up actor who just finished playing the title character on a legal drama also called The Grinder. After returning to Boise, Idaho to spend some time with his family, Dean believes he can keep trying cases alongside his brother Stewart (Fred Savage) and their dad, both actual lawyers. And while the long-suffering Stewart just wants to keep Dean from destroying the family law firm, Dean is enabled in his fantasy by the rest of the Sandersons—who spend most of their time sitting around watching Grinder reruns and letting Dean wax lyrical about the craft. Any of this sound familiar?
The parallels between Lookwell and The Grinder run deep—Scott Aukerman mentioned the connection while interviewing Savage on Comedy Bang! Bang!—yet the latter show has sidestepped the narrative issues that would have sunk Lookwell. The Grinder didn’t just make it to a second episode—it was picked up for 22, accumulating critical accolades and award nominations (plus a Critics Choice win for guest star Timothy Olyphant) along the way. It’s currently in the middle of a complex multi-episode arc that goes well beyond what most typical sitcoms would ever attempt, let alone try in their first season. So why does The Grinder succeed where Lookwell didn’t?
While The Grinder had its own independent genesis, it’s instructive here to think of the show as a tweak on Lookwell’s premise. First, making the star’s old role a lawyer instead of a cop opens up many more narrative possibilities. As Lookwell demonstrates, there’s no real way for a bumbling idiot to sort of solve a case; instead, Ty Lookwell spends 22 minutes running full-speed down the blindest of alleys, leaving the resolution of the case a contrived afterthought for which no sane person would give Lookwell credit. The courtroom, on the other hand, provides more latitude for Dean Sanderson’s Grinder-derived showmanship to carry the day.
That’s not to say the “real” cases on The Grinder are actually realistic, or even especially plausible. But ridiculous violations of proper legal procedure are already such an accepted part of the TV lexicon that The Grinder has space for Dean to maneuver in a way that Lookwell doesn’t. It doesn’t hurt that each episode begins with a clip of Dean’s old show, which is consistently depicted as the most ludicrously pulpy and over-the-top show ever made, making pretty much any of the show’s actual legal machinations look believable by comparison. What little we see of Bannigan doesn’t suggest similar ridiculousness, providing far less room for suspension of disbelief in Lookwell’s investigations.
On that point, the change in setting is also crucial. Lookwell never leaves Los Angeles, the better to heighten the contrast between the delusional Lookwell and the world-weary cops and ordinary citizens he encounters in the course of his sleuthing. The L.A. of Lookwell feels like a real city with real problems, and the pilot directs almost all its comedic ire toward the show’s acting community, the members of which are depicted as the only ones gullible enough to go along with Lookwell’s insanity. The Grinder, on the other hand, moves Dean to Boise, where even the judges are sufficiently impressed by his star power to let him pretend to be a lawyer in actual court.
The show doesn’t go too far in depicting its Idahoans as small-town rubes. Rather, The Grinder presents Boise as a small enough place that the presence of a big TV star wanting to practice law would be treated as an exciting novelty, and that even those locals who should technically know better see no reason not to just go with the flow and have a bit of fun. The Grinder intentionally keeps its legal drama as low-stakes as possible: One of the first season’s best episodes finds Dean taking on Olyphant—playing an exaggerated version of himself, who in this world stars in the spin-off The Grinder: New Orleans—in a battle of fake lawyering skill, with the buddies of Dean’s father serving as a bored, de facto jury. By contrast, Lookwell archly impersonates an L.A.-set cop show, meaning there’s a lower limit to how frivolous it can be. Cars being stolen from dealerships represent just about the least serious, most victimless crimes possible—one shudders to imagine Ty Lookwell bumbling his way through, say, a murder case.
But the biggest departure from Lookwell lies in The Grinder’s supporting cast. While the Lookwell pilot leaves it an open question whether anyone in the world actually cares what happens to its title character, Dean Sanderson is unquestionably loved, even coddled, by the rest of his family. Lookwell can’t really justify why any of the acting students would follow Lookwell’s lead without being deluded themselves, but The Grinder’s justification provides much of the fuel for the show’s emotional arcs: The Sandersons are just trying to figure out the best way to love and support Dean, while also indulging in some of their own fantasies of a more exciting life. Detective Kennery opposes Lookwell because it’s his job, but Stewart opposes Dean both because it’s his job and because he’s trying to work through all the issues he has with his famous sibling.
This central dynamic between Dean and Stewart has allowed The Grinder to evolve beyond the genre-parody roots that it shares with Lookwell. Ty Lookwell keeps trying to solve cases because that’s all he knows how to do, but Dean just sees that as one potential way forward with the rest of his life. Stewart’s desperation to get things back as they were leads to several plots in which he engineers scenarios meant to distract Dean from the law, like setting Dean up with an old girlfriend or bringing in Olyphant and The Grinder creator Cliff Bemis (Jason Alexander) to tempt Dean back into a life of show business. The show’s current arc finds Dean forsaking his old identity as Mitchard Grinder and all the drama that comes with it at the worst possible time, as a malpractice suit against his father leads Stewart to think the family’s sleepy firm is being targeted by a conspiracy straight out of Dean’s old show.
At its core, The Grinder is every bit as absurd and meta as Lookwell, and it would be a mistake to suggest that the show succeeds solely because of some great attention paid to character or plot. The Grinder works because it cares just enough about those things to engineer a narrative formula that can generate stories on a weekly basis. And, 25 years later, it’s possible to see glimmers of that same potential buried deep within Lookwell. The pilot alludes to Lookwell’s unseen nephew, an instantly successful actor whom Francis Ford Coppola is desperate to work with. This plays as another joke at Lookwell’s expense, but perhaps that character—or Detective Kennery or Jason, both of whom show some measure of genuine concern for the delusional actor—could have given Ty Lookwell just enough of a connection to recognizable human emotion to function as something more than just a purely comedic creation. Maybe Lookwell’s accidental success at the pilot’s end could have won him unlikely support from some foolish higher-up in the LAPD, pairing Kennery and Lookwell in a kind of demented variation on what’s now the Castle setup. Or perhaps some kind of renewed interest in Bannigan could have given Ty’s life meaning beyond his insane stabs at detective work.
Maybe those could have worked in the wild alternate universe where Lookwell went to series. Maybe they wouldn’t have. But part of the fun of The Grinder is that its relative success—it’s lasted a season, though its ratings don’t indicate much future beyond that—makes it conceivable to see how Lookwell could have actually made it to a second episode. Perhaps the impossible premise of television’s most legendary failed pilot wasn’t so impossible after all.