Sunday, April 21, 2019

Must See Streaming TV Project: Insight (1960-1985)

 
If you follow any of my social media, you've probably seen my recent posts on TV movies streaming on Amazon Prime. I have found a gazillion amazing TVMs and the feedback on my posts has been quite positive, so I'm extending this project to cover an intriguing syndicated religious television series called Insight.

I've been interested in Insight for some time now, and actually did a bit of research on it many years ago, in the hopes I could write something about it. Unfortunately, that research and time have slipped away from me. But recently, I noticed that episodes began appearing on YouTube, in what looks like legal channels.


*Just a note: I realize there is an amazing amount of content online, available through many different means, but I only want to promote product I think is being streamed by the proper rights holders. It might stem from working at the Directors Guild for so many years that I've been trained to do this, but I think it's important we support the people who may be in charge of getting these things out into a physical format, properly cleaned up and with extras, if possible. I certainly don't discourage anyone from watching what they can where they can (your passion for classic TV and telefilms is why I'm here), but I will only promote the legal streams.

That said, OMG, guys! Insight is online and looking great. The YouTube page looks to be run by Paulist Productions and it just appeared recently and is constantly uploading new episodes! So, I've decided to pick an episode, probably on a bimonthly basis, and do a short capsule review with an image or two. Hopefully I can dig up enough trivia as a way to provide a little production history to this fascinating and long running series.

I'll be adding every review to this post, and my picks will be random, but I'll list them in alphabetical order. Hopefully I can put together a decent catalog, with access to every episode Paulist Productions uploads. Call me a classic TV freak, but honestly it's exciting.


So, as I said, my previous research kind of went by the wayside, so let me tell you what little I remember about the show. Insight was created by a priest named Ellwood E. "Bud" Kieser. It's my understanding that he was interested in non-denominational preaching, and this series ran the gamut of episodes that felt either like The Twilight Zone or an ABC Afterschool Special. They could be really surreal, or sometimes they were based in the very real. It could be faith-based, but often it was driven by social issues. And the class of actors was astounding. I think Martin Sheen is in a huge amount of episodes, but you'll also see Bob Newhart, Jack Klugman James Farentino, Bill Bixby, Patty Duke and Cicely Tyson, among many others.

I'll be researching the series as I go along, and I hope I can dig up some interesting nuggets for everyone. This is a work in progress, and I'm unsure of the exact layout (i.e. will trivia go with an episode or get its own section, etc.), but I think it will be fun.

You can always check back here, but you can also find updates at the following:

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*One final note: It probably means nothing, but just to clarify, I'm not particularly religious, although I love faith based television. (Confession: I was a die hard Touched by an Angel fan!) I think these kinds of shows are really fascinating, especially when they are more driven by social issues. This is all to say, I won't do any proselytizing here. I only want to look back at the historical and cultural impact of the series. Whatever your belief system, I hope you come along for the ride!  

So let's get started!

 
Checkmate (OAD: November 13th, 1979, episode #421, reviewed May 12th, 2019): Checkmate is a quirky entry into Insight. It's about a guy named Andy (Bruce Davison) looking for the perfect mate (as it were). And, with an emphasis on the word "perfect." So, it might not be a surprise that he turns to a fembot named Gally (Rebecca Balding) in his search for true love. But soon Andy realizes how one-sided love can be when your definition of "perfection" is to have a partner who only lives for you.

Original newspaper listing, a little spicy!
Clearly this is a comedy, and a fun one at that. Checkmate was directed by Jay Sandrich (Mary Tyler Moore, Soap), and written by Lan O'Kun (Love, American Style, Love Boat), It makes its point with both a heavy hand and a light touch. It takes a sweet, offbeat approach, gently guiding viewers to the inevitable, and possibly predictable conclusion. But, it also has characters named T. Lord, and you can see where that is going. God needs to step in and guide Andy... a lot. Still, the message is good. Let go of the idea of perfection, and you may actually find something better.


Checkmate has a cast so amazing I wouldn't have even cared if there was a story! Davison is one of the greats, always interesting and captivating. Efrem Zimbalist Jr. is cut from a similar cloth, and is a treat. But most importantly, Rebecca Balding is a queen. I have been in love with / terrified of her since I first saw her on Soap. Even as a female cyborg that is supposed to be the perfect woman (by way of a very 1950s ideology of that definition), she's strong and captivating. Sweet, but never empty, Gally is more than just a physically beautiful robot, there is beauty within her. It's easy to understand why Andy falls for her. Her human form is also sweet, but different from her robot form, flawed and challenging but real. And it's simply a lovely performance. This entry into Insight is just delightful!


 
The Prisoner (OAD: May 6th, 1965, episode #140, reviewed May 26, 2019): I chose this episode because of the still image used on the upload, which features Jack Klugman wearing an eye patch and holding a puppy (see image posted above in the intro for a sample)! I guess I couldn't have predicted how moving and harrowing The Prisoner was going to be.

Klugman plays a man named Weiss, and he's spending a rainy day at the pet shop, buying a puppy. The pet store owner is named Ben (no name given in the IMDb credits), and he has come to loathe rainy days because they remind him of his time in Auschwitz. After getting into a argument with Weiss, Ben finds out that Weiss was also a prisoner at the same camp, and had associated with a man named Maximilian Kolbe (Werner Klemper playing a prisoner about 4 months before he would become Col. Klink on Hogan's Heroes!), a Polish friar who opposes the Nazis at every turn. Kolbe is constantly beaten for his rebelling and his cell mates seem to either love him or hate him for it. He plots an escape for a fellow prisoner, but when it is revealed that someone has fled Auschwitz, the Nazis decide that one of the men left behind should starve to death as punishment.


This is an intense episode, and based on real events. Kolbe was a real man who offered his life in order to save another.  The Prisoner dances fairly elegantly around the question of why a God, who is supposed to be all loving and all knowing, would let something like the Nazi uprising happen under his watch. There are no answers, only a chance to feel hope in the darkest of situations, and to maybe understand that there is still good in the world. Kolbe's ultimate sacrifice at the end allows Weiss to open his mind and heart and to also not let this experience dictate his ability to believe in a God.

An original newspaper listing for the episode

In lesser hands, this could have been really heavy handed, but the filmmakers don't offer obvious answers. And, the acting is wonderful. Klugman, of course, flourished in these kinds of one-off roles he seemed to often do on TV. Klemper is a bit of a revelation too. I didn't recognize him at first, and I'm not sure I'd really seen him in a drama before. He's deft and subtle, and his scenes with Klugman are just terrific.

I want to just pull a quote from The Prisoner that I was really taken by, and which expresses why I feel Insight is such an amazing show. At the end of the episode Weiss says to Ben, "No one can alter the truth. All we can do is seek it, find it and try to live it." Great storytelling, and a really wonderful entry into the Insight series.



When, Jenny? When? (OAD: February 1st, 1979, episode #806, reviewed April 21st, 2019): This may be one of the most famous episodes of Insight. I can see why. It's Afterschool Special all the way, and it features Maureen McCormick as a beautiful teenager whose low self-esteem has given her a notorious rep at school. This episode features Jeff East, Clark Brandon and Olive Cole, and was directed by Ted Post (Five Desperate Women, The Baby, and lots of other great movies). In terms of episodic television, Post's name is probably more aligned with The Twilight Zone, but he directed several episodes of Insight. Like he did with the 1972 telefilm Sandcastles, Post directs When, Jenny? When? with a lot of sensitivity and tenderness. Aside from tackling self-esteem, this episode also explores peer pressure, self-identity, and my favorite topic, the loneliness of difference.

Original newspaper listing
The story is told both through Jenny's (McCormick) experiences and how she recounts those experiences with her high school counselor (Cole). What I appreciate about the episode is how it shows how desperate Jenny is to be loved by giving sex freely, but the act itself is not judged (she says sex feels good and she's told she can wear white at her wedding if she wants). But it is analyzed, and Jenny realizes that if she wants to truly be loved, she has to love herself first, and that means standing up for herself. Although it has to be quickly resolved in 22 minutes or so, When, Jenny? When? is handled with taste and thought. Also, Jenny's got a great theme song which helps move things along! Overall, the Afterschool Special approach gave me all the feels. I loved it.







Saturday, March 9, 2019

Hooray! Rondo Nominations and other MFTVM News!


If you follow my social media, you may have seen that I was nominated for three Rondo Awards this year! But in case you haven't, I just wanted to spread the word on ye old blog, with a little info on how to vote.

Let me begin with the nominations themselves. I have to admit, it was really great to wake up last Friday morning and see my name all over the ballot. It means a lot and I feel so honored to be listed in the following categories, because the competition is wonderful!
You can look at the ballot for the Rondo Awards, and send your votes to taraco@aol.com.

OK, I haven't won anything, but seriously, thanks to the folks who nominated me!
I won't go into too much about why each nomination is really important to me, but let's just say talking to people (whether in person or even on a podcast) has always been a nerve wracking experience, so to see the support from the horror community that I'm doing OK at some of these things just really means a whole heck of a lot.

So, big thanks to any and everyone who listens to, or attends anything where you have to hear me jabber for a couple of hours. It's been great and I truly appreciate each and every one of you, even if you don't vote for me (but you know, vote for me). There are so many great podcasts, commentaries and events to choose from, so go look and vote with your heart!

Also, if you haven't seen, I was recently interviewed by the Los Angeles Times in a piece all about TV movies! You should check it out!

(The LA Times brought a photographer to my lecture, but the photos didn't make the article. Here's some outtakes my friend took! The second snap is me with the powerhouse we call Kier-La Janisse!)



One more piece of Made for TV Mayhem news. I've opened up an Instagram account (@madefortvmayhem) which will hopefully allow me to add a more visual aesthetic to what I'm already doing on facebook and twitter. Come and follow me, please! I'm just getting started, but I have tons of TV Guide ads, as well as some promo pics and screen grabs that I'm dying to share on a more regular basis. Plus, it will serve as another place to update everyone on podcast episodes or new blog posts or any other kind of related news.

Coming soon!
And finally: I think I'm actually almost done with my intro episode to The Trap-Cast, which is just going to be a monthly series of minisodes dedicated to the show Trapper John MD! It's time, guys.

Thanks to everyone again! I've actually half-written two reviews for this blog, so I hope I can find a little time to finish them. Til then, I have more exciting news coming soon... So please keep tuning in! Thank you!

Monday, February 18, 2019

Miskatonic Talk (No. 3): A list



I just gave my third Miskatonic Institute of Horror Studies talk on February 7th. Again, it was all about TV genre movies, but since it was longer than my talk in London, a few things have changed. Also, please note that I DID NOT update this list with my lecture in New York City, so this will be slightly different from that talk, but closer to it than the one in London (following this, cuz I am not sure I am!). Anyway, here's what was discussed and seen. And again, big thanks to Kier-La Janisse and the fine folks at the Philosophical Research Society for hosting such a great event. And I'm also throwing a lot of gratitude and love towards the audience who have been incredible at all of my talks. Thank you, thank you, thank you!!!!

Topic: TV Movies as an Event

Opening Bumper Reel:
Deliver Us From Evil
KISS Meets the Phantom of the Park
Trackdown: Finding the Goodbar Killer
Midnight Hour


Topic: An Overview of the History of the TV Movie
Maybe I’ll Come Home in the Spring
Strange Possession of Mrs. Oliver

Subtopic: The Intimacy Aspect
The Astronaut / Capricorn 1
The Spell / Carrie

Subtopic: The First Made for TV Movies:
See How they Run
Seven in Darkness

Topic: Popularity of the TV Movie (Nielsens)
Dr. Cook's Garden
Crowhaven Farm
The Girl Most Likely To...
Cry in the Wilderness

Topic: So Many Subgenres!
Invitation to Hell (Satanic Panic)
Legend of Lizzie Borden (True Crime)
The Stranger Within (Sci-Fi)
Five Desperate Women (proto-slasher)
Ants! (Nature Runs Amok)
Bad Ronald (Evil Kids)
Mazes and Monsters (Propaganda)
Killjoy (Thriller)


Subtopic: That's a Pilot TV Movie?!
Madame Sin
Cover Girls
Velvet
Ebony, Ivory and Jade
Samurai
Men of the Dragon

Topic: Important Filmmakers:
John Llewellyn Moxey
Aaron Spelling
Steven Spielberg: Duel
John Badham: It's it Shocking?
John Carpenter: Someone's Watching Me!
David Levinson / William Wiard
Richard Levinson / William Link
Dan Curtis
Richard Matheson

Clip reel (Curtis/Matheson):
Night Stalker
Trilogy of Terror
Dracula
Dead of Night: Bobby

Topic: Climbing out of the Pigeonhole:
Robert Reed
Elizabeth Montgomery
Barbara Eden
Andy Griffith

Clip reel: 
Barbara Eden: The Woman Hunter
Robert Reed: Haunts of the Very Rich



Topic: Marketing the Horror Telefilm
Savages
Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby

Promo clip reel:
Born Innocent
Deadly Lessons
The Intruder Within
Someone’s Watching Me!
Invitation to Hell
Bad Seed
Look What Happened to Rosemary’s Baby

TV Guide Section:
The Babysitter
Fantasies
Dying Room Only
This House Possessed
Bridge Across Time (aka Terror at London Bridge)
Midnight Hour
No Place to Hide
Are You in the House Alone?




Topic: Popular Subgenre - Supernatural
Subtopic: The Haunted House/Ghost Story Telefilm, and the Intimacy of Grief:
Fear No Evil
Daughter of the Mind
The House that Would Not Die
Don’t Go to Sleep
This House Possessed
She Waits
(*all of the above had companion clips, with the exception of The House that Wouldn't Die)

 
Subtopic: The Paranormal TVM and Second Wave Feminism
The Spell
Midnight Offerings (included clip)
Initiation of Sarah
Wes Craven's Summer of Fear

TOPIC: Female Ensembles
Five Desperate Women
She's Dressed to Kill
Friendships, Secrets and Lies

Clip reel:
Home for the Holidays
Do Not Fold, Spindle or Mutilate
She's Dressed to Kill


Topic: A Small Screen Nasty Moment
Born Innocent


Topic: Into the Eighties
Dark Night of the Scarecrow
I, Desire
Fantasies
Dark Mansions
A Stranger Waits

TOPIC: THE 90s and Beyond!
The Haunted

Subtopic: The USA Original Movie
The China Lake Murders
Dirty Little Secret


Subtopic: Mother, May I Sleep with Demographics?
Death of a Cheerleader

Promo reel:
Friends til the End
Death of a Cheerleader
A Killer in the Family
Awake to Danger
The Man Who Wouldn't Die
Frankenstein: The College Years
Dark Shadows
Stepford Husbands

Topic: You Can't Keep a Good Concept Down:
Sabertooth
The Perfect Neighbor
Spring Break Shark Attack
Rosemary's Baby

Topic: Monsters!
Promo reel:
The Intruder Within
Don't Be Afraid of the Dark
Devil Dog: Hound of Hell
Snowbeast
The World Beyond
Gargoyles

The End!

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Hollywood Television Theater: The Scarecrow (1972)


Network: PBS
Original Airdate: January 10th, 1972


When Percy MacKaye wrote his play The Scarecrow in 1908, he only meant for his audience to make the loosest connections to its obvious inspiration, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story Feathertop. Admittedly, even MacKaye would have a hard time denying the liberal doses he borrowed from Hawthorne’s story about a witch who creates a man out of a scarecrow, sending him off to woo a wealthy, impressionable young woman. But, it is in the metaphor itself that MacKaye drew on something distinct, softening Hawthorne’s condemnation of the class system and of humanity in general.


 Hawthorne’s work was often heavily tinged in the surreal, and Feathertop is no exception, mixing supernatural mischief and morality in a way that made the story unique and still oh-so-Hawthorne in the commentary. Feathertop sought to expose people for what they were, and to recognize the irony with which they live their own life, as well as how they choose to judge others (Hawthorne uses the word “trash” to compare the makeup of the scarecrow and that of the human race). Ending the tale with Feathertop returning to its original scarecrow form, Hawthorne surmised that an inanimate object was better off in effigy than had it continued to live as a man. However, MacKaye went down a far more sentimental route, making our scarecrow (named Lord Ravensbane in human form) a sympathetic and sad character whose happiness is only derived when he dies a mortal man. The 1972 Hollywood Television Theater production of The Scarecrow upholds the poignancy of MacKaye’s tale. Although, it also highlights some of the whimsical satire Hawthorne embraced and which MacKaye slyly inserted. It is most noted in a party scene where the upper echelon are eager to welcome Lord Ravensbane’s eccentric character into their wealthy fold, but then are just as quick to disown him, even when the truth of his original form leaves him heartbroken and humiliated.


Hollywood Television Theater was a series that aired on local PBS affiliates throughout the United States from 1970-1978. It was conceived by KCET in Los Angeles and that channel capitalized on its location and accessibility to recognizable faces, casting several high profile actors to appear in their productions. Their debut adaptation of The Anderson Trial starred William Shatner, and Martin Sheen (and was directed by George C. Scott!). Other productions featured Earl Holliman (Montserrat, 1972), Joseph Bottoms (Winesburg, Ohio, 1973) and David Hedison (For the Use of the Hall, 1975). According to Adapting Nathaniel Hawthorne to the Screen: Forging New Worlds, this series sought to give audiences an alternative to the cookie cutter world of television of this era. They brought all kinds of heavy hitting playwrights to the show, including Anton Chekhov (Two By Chekov, 1972) and Arthur Miller (Incident at Vichy, 1973). The directors were often well known journeymen such as Boris Sagal, who directed this entry, but actors, like the aforementioned Scott came into the role too, and prominent performers such as Lee Grant (For the Use of the Hall), and Rip Torn (Two By Chekov) took on the heady productions.


Sagal was a Russian born filmmaker who moved from theatricals to telefilms to episodics on a regular basis. With this production, he keeps things simple, while adding shades of flair along the way. Since it wasn’t shot in front of a live audience, the director threw in a few simple effects that, along with its muted shot-on-video pallor, give the play a substantial measure of filmic surrealism that keeps the viewer a little off-kilter as the play progresses.


At this stage in the history of PBS, the network found itself under fire by certain politicians who thought too much government money went into producing television (sound familiar?). So, PBS sought out a mawkish and mainstream title, and The Scarecrow is now considered one of the lesser adaptations to come out of the series. However, it was also a sorely needed entry, balancing out the edgier fare to appease the mostly upper middle class audience’s more conservative ideologies. It’s a bit ironic that this play sometimes lampoons the types of people most associated the PBS viewership, and also most known for condemning it.


The critics at the time were mixed on their thoughts. Henry Mitchell of the Washington Post wrote, “Nothing in the play is very far developed or very carefully worked out, and the sad result was a shiny-wrapped but none too meaty TV dinner, half-baked.” Conversely, Cecil Smith of the Los Angeles Times quite enjoyed it, calling The Scarecrow a “stunning production” that stepped out of “academic mustiness.” However, Smith also criticized the plush production as maybe a little too expensive for what is intended to be a modest television series, thereby giving greedy politicians a decent arguing point.


Certainly some good money went into the absolutely magnificent cast, which features Blythe Danner, Will Geer, Norman Lloyd, Nina Foch, Elisha Cook, Sian Barbara Allen and an electrifying Gene Wilder as Lord Ravensbane. Wilder’s physical take on manifesting from his original scarecrow state to that of a man, and learning to grow emotionally in that capacity is spellbinding. The scene where he attempts to call out to his mother is both disturbing and sympathetic. And although Ravensbane is definitely the oddest ball in the house, it’s easy to see how the vulnerable and sensitive Rachel (Danner) could fall for his quirky charms.


Pete Duel plays Ravensbane’s nemesis Richard Talbot, the man who has already claimed beautiful Rachel’s hand. Duel is the most under-the-radar actor in the cast, and his delivery feels more tailored for television, as compared to the bigger performances. But it is exhilarating in its own way, anchoring some of the play’s more outlandish moments. There’s also a touch of relatable humanity there. Talbot is jealous but logical and thoughtful, and by the conclusion, empathetic towards his enemy, and ultimately there for him at the end. It’s an interesting yin-yang relationship that could have been explored on a deeper level.

 
Nevertheless, the end product is both intriguing and delightful. At times a little posh and chaotic perhaps, but also earnestly produced, and extremely well acted. It might lack the morality lesson of a Hawthorne classic, but in an era of unrest and during the Vietnam War, The Scarecrow offers audiences a chance to realize that humanity is a virtue and yes, the scarecrow doesn’t just have a brain, he also has a heart.


This blog post was inspired by an upcoming Australian film journal from Lee Gambin and his film collective CineManiacs. The first issue is dedicated to scarecrows and I wrote about Dark Night of the Scarecrow, and interviewed Jeff Burr about his direct-to-video slasher Night of the Scarecrow. Keep an eye on my social media channels for updates on the release of the journal!