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:


*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!

All the Little Plumes in Pain (OAD: September 17th, 1967, episode #193, reviewed June 21, 2020): A young but square attorney finds himself in the middle of the counterculture movement when he attempts to lure his friend Jenny (Celia Kaye) out of Haight-Ashbury. Her friends don't want to let her go, but what looks like a clash of cultures soon becomes an understanding of love, friendship and family as the straight-laced lawyer finds he may have underestimated Jenny's hippie circle.

Original newspaper listing
All the Little Plumes of Pain is surprising in how it takes an affectionate view of the hippie movement. While there is talk of drug use (and talk against it), overall the counterculture characters are portrayed as offbeat but good. The lawyer, played by Guy Stockwell (looking so young and dapper!) is also a good person whose main concern is to simply facilitate a young woman's reunion with her parents. However, his tactics are more obvious, and somewhat corrupt. Jenny is underage so he threatens to shut down the printing press she helps to run, which would lead to an eviction of everyone else who lives in that humble space they've carved out for themselves. He also attempts to bribe the group. He is taken aback when he sees them holding a small service dedicated to God, and shocked when they return his threats with love. In the end, the little plumes in pain are Stockwell and others like him, caught up in the monkey-suit-nine-to-five existence that leaves them condemning and community and friendships that seem different from the norm.

Directed by one of my favorite small screen filmmakers, John Newland (Don't Be Afraid of the Dark), this would be the first time Newland worked with Kaye. She also appears in a Young Lawyers episode he directed, and she is featured in Newland's aforementioned small screen monster classic Don't Be Afraid of the Dark. She's quite lovely and puts in a measured performance as the lonely little girl just looking for purpose and love. However, while Jenny is the central character, this episode belongs to Stockwell and Prine who quietly battle over the young woman. Jenny makes the decision that is right for her needs, but both choices offer hope for her future. The ending shot of one of the hippies playing hopscotch (something they do throughout the episode) is given some depth when Prine explains, "Hopsotch is just a game. A game you play trying to get around the squares." It leaves a sort of eerie open-endedness to the episode I wasn't expecting. Newland does it again!

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 Day God Died (OAD: July 13, 1969, episode #212, reviewed June 21, 2020): This episode begins with my beloved Lloyd Bochner reporting the news that God has died. While his death didn't create havoc in the streets, there were a number of suicides reported. Those who studied, but didn't necessarily practice religion viewed this "death" as the end of an image, but nothing more than that. A group of these scholars are at a memorial service for God, "celebrating" his image and lamenting what may replace him. During the course of the party, most guests are revealed to be in the midst of different personal crisis, to have a lack in faith, and in general go about acting selfishly. The end reveal suggests that the death of God means the death of humanity.

A brief newspaper notice highlighting how The Day God Died 
opened up a dialogue about the current state of religion

Known for being whimsical, thoughtful and sometimes dark, audiences were probably never sure what they'd get when they turned into Insight every week. A large chunk of the episodes didn't mention religion at all, while others were heavily focused on exploring theological issues that were relevant to the era. Just based on the title, it is obvious this one is going right for the religious jugular, and does a terrific job of showcasing many different minor storylines while guiding the viewer to the ultimate terrifying conclusion. The excellent screenplay by James E. Moser somehow manages to view these characters and their acts in a non-judgmental way, while also condemning them for letting go of faith.

The cast is crazy amazing! I've already mentioned Bochner, but you will also feast your eyes on the likes of Diana Muldaur (looking so beautiful I couldn't take my eyes off of her), Mariette Hartley, Beverly Garland, Efrem Zimbalist Jr., Carrol O'Connor and Roger Perry, among others. Unlike some of my favorite episodes, this is not an upbeat entry, but it is thoughtful and intriguing and definitely moving into that Twilight Zone structure of storytelling. Dark as night, but also strangely heartfelt and genuine in its attempt to not be overly heavy-handed. Also, there a bit of gruesome imagery at the end. Thoughtful, and worth seeing.

Little Miseries (OAD: November 15th, 1981, episode #440, reviewed July 7, 2019): I probably don't have to tell you why I chose this episode. Well, I'll give you four words: John Ritter and Audra Lindley! Yes, Jack Tripper and Mrs. Roper joined forces once again to add a little, ummm, insight into the human condition. The story is simple: Ritter is Frankie, a sweet confirmed bachelor who is surrounded by some seriously negative vibes that come in the guise of Aunt Carmela (Lindley) and Uncle Christopher (Edward Andrews). Carmela introduces Frankie to the lovely and seemingly happy Donna (Stephanie Faracy, who played Ritter's ex-wife in the 1990s TVM Thriller No Way Out), and the chemistry seems to be just right, only Donna is dying of leukemia and doesn't have much longer to live.

The casting of John Ritter made the news! (although this was for a 1982 rerun)

I've always be fascinated with the many different ways you can give such dark moments of our lives a lighter touch, and Little Miseries, which was written by Ben Elisco (whose only other writing credit was for WKRP in Cincinnati), manages to tackle a really tough issue with a sense of hope and even sweetness. Frankie's relatives live in a "gloom" (as Frankie puts it), but they think that's helping him prepare for the more difficult moments in life. And that perhaps disappointment will fuel change or at least action. The dialog is a mixture of morbid humor along with some rather poignant thoughts about what the darkness is and that those who live there do so because it's easier to hide. But the introduction of Donna into Frankie's life allows him to finally see a light.

This is a lovely, but strange episode. There's a twist at the end that makes Carmela seem rather cruel. But, at the same time the discovery and confrontation of her lie allows her to open up and finally reveal why she's trying to harden Frankie. It throws the episode off a bit, but Ritter and Lindley are so good, you just want to sit back and watch. So, not perfect, but pretty darn good and worth seeing just for Ritter, who can never disappoint.

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.