The title card of Insight in the early 1970s
  • The title card of Insight in the early 1970s

“Mike doesn’t get drunk and go to the Acme Hotel to pick up 17-year-old girls!”

That’s not the sort of thing you’d expect to hear on a TV show produced by a Catholic priest, nor would you expect Mike’s wife to forgive him for his transgression in the next scene. But such developments were par for the course on Insight, a Twilight Zone-esque anthology series that ran in syndication from 1960 to 1983. Tomorrow night at 8 PM the Nightingale revisits this unusual chapter of television history, as archivists Mark Quigley (of the UCLA Film & Television Archive) and Jeff Martin will present the episode in question and discuss Insight‘s rise and fall.

Introduced as “an exploration in depth of the spiritual conflicts of the 20th century,” Insight presented half hour morality plays on topical issues, raising questions but not always answering them. In “Locusts Have No King” (1965), the episode screening tomorrow, William Shatner plays Mike, an upstanding citizen newly elected to the reform committee of his midwestern everytown. Mike wants to combat a casino owner’s influence on the local economy—the tycoon wants to open more shady businesses, which will likely harm the longtime store owners in the vicinity. But when word spreads of Mike plans, the casino owner starts pulling dirty tricks to discredit the young idealist. Mike emerges triumphant at the end of the episode, but only after he acknowledges that he’s sure to face more challenges down the road.

It’s a remarkably effective piece of drama for something made on a shoestring budget and originally aired at 4 AM. The script, by Martin Ralston (a veteran TV writer who would go on to pen the cult classic Willard), is terse and suspenseful, the performances thoughtful, and direction, by Ted Post (who’d later direct Clint Eastwood in Hang ‘Em High and Magnum Force), assured and fluid. Indeed Insight attracted quite a few Hollywood talents over the course of its 23-year run. Rod Serling, William Peter Blatty (The Exorcist), and Michael Crichton wrote teleplays for the series; and the staggering list of guest stars includes Carol Burnett, Ron Howard, Patty Duke, Roscoe Lee Browne, Bob Newhart, Mark Hamill, Ed Asner, Walter Matthau, Ida Lupino, and Martin Sheen. (At present you can watch one of the episodes in which Sheen appeared, “Is Anyone Listening?” [1978], on YouTube.)

How did this program become a mainstay of network affiliates across the United States? The short answer is that they had to show it. Until the early 1980s, American TV stations received great pressure from the FCC to accept “public interest credits,” tax rebates for airing a certain amount of public service announcements each week. (The FCC slackened its enforcement of the credit during Ronald Reagan’s deregulation frenzy.) Ellwood Kieser (1929-2000), a progressive-minded Catholic priest, decided to take advantage of the situation and create a serious program that would appeal to Christians and non-Christians alike. Serving as producer and onscreen host, Kieser established an atmosphere of creative freedom, earning the respect of numerous Hollywood talents and getting them to work on the show for free. The program (which always aired without commercials) covered a range of genres—from comedy to science fiction to crime drama—and addressed such controversial subjects as nuclear proliferation, suicide, LSD, and the My Lai Massacre.

The company that made Insight was called Paulist Productions, named after the Catholic order to which Kieser belonged. Founded in 1858 by one Isaac Hecker, the Paulist Fathers aspire to “meet the contemporary culture on its own terms,” according to the order’s website, “to present the Gospel message in ways that are compelling but not diluted, so that the fullness of the Catholic faith may lead others to find Christ’s deep peace and ‘unreachable quiet’. . . Paulists do not condemn culture, nor do we try to conform the Gospel to it. Rather, we preach the Gospel in new ways and in new forms.” Hecker began the order to draw lapsed Catholics and Protestants into the fold, but over time the mission broadened, and Paulists became committed to interfaith dialogue and involvement with secular charity organizations.

“I am my brother’s keeper—doesn’t this also make me society’s keeper?” asks Kieser at the end of “Locusts Have No King,” effectively summarizing the Paulist philosophy. Even by Paulist standards, however, Kieser interacted with society in unorthodox ways. In an essay written for The Moving Image in spring 2009, Quigley relates that Kieser set up the Paulist Productions office in a former speakeasy (and alleged mob hangout) on the Santa Monica Pier—the donation of the second wife of the second husband of actress Thelma Todd, who had died on the property under mysterious circumstances in 1935. Kieser moved to Los Angeles in the 1960s to work on Insight and soon ingratiated himself with the showbiz community. By the 1970s, he was a regular guest on TV talk shows. His autobiography, published in 1991, is titled Hollywood Priest.

Throughout his life Kieser spoke openly about his moral frailty—in Hollywood Priest he confessed to having a close friendship with a nun that almost led to romance. Kieser encouraged this sort of soul-searching in the writers and directors he worked with, advancing a message of spiritual enhancement that was ultimately humanist. An avowed liberal, he spoke out against censorship even though he decried violence in movies and TV, and in the 1980s he defended the South American liberation theologists whom Ronald Reagan vilified as terrorists. (The one theatrical feature that Kieser produced, Romero [1989], is a docudrama about the assassination of leftist Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero.)

Weighing in at a whopping 261 episodes, Insight was clearly Kieser’s magnum opus. In hindsight, it seems as though the program premiered during a veritable golden age of agnostic art, the years of Robert Bresson’s so-called prison quartet (Diary of a Country Priest, A Man Escaped, Pickpocket, and The Trial of Joan of Arc) and Au Hasard Balthasar, Ingmar Bergman’s “Silence of God” trilogy (Through a Glass Darkly, Winter Light, and The Silence), Luis Buñuel’s Viridiana and The Milky Way, and Walker Percy’s novels The Moviegoer and The Last Gentleman. Insight was a pioneer of this cultural landscape, bringing a mix of formal experimentation and moral seriousness to the outer reaches of syndicated television.