The Internet is an amazing medium and is a natural for television. I love to pull up old TV shows on YouTube, such as the Morey Amsterdam Show that ran on the defunct DuMont TV Network on 1949. I watched the show to see Morey not playing Buddy from The Dick Van Dyke Show (which I loved as a child and remember fondly) and also to see the great Art Carney in one of his first TV roles, before he became an immortal as Norton on The Honeymooners.
What a window on a vanished world! Watching the show, which was 15 minutes long (as were many TV shows in the early days) allowed me a glimpse at the astounding;y modest beginnings of the greatest mass medium the world has known, before the Internet itself. The Morey Amsterdam Show looks like it was budgeted at about 20 bucks per episode. It was filmed with one, static camera (not the three-cameras that I Love Lucy pioneered and made a standard for most comedy shows).
Morey plays an emcee at a nightclub, and Art Carney a bumbling waiter who’s also an entertainer. The “club” consists of a curtain as a backdrop and some tables and chairs. The show is entirely focused on the entertainer who has center stage, either Morey or Carney, or both. It is about as primitive as the first silent movies, before The Great Train Robbery (1904) introduced movement and cross-cutting into the cinema.
Web TV is further along than The Morey Amsterdam Show. Video technology, including cameras and the software that has made a PC or Mac a piece of editing equipment more sophisticated than the old mechanical Steenbeck editing consoles of Hollywood’s Gold and Silver Ages means that Internet entertainment never has to be as static or primitive as the first TV shows, since Lucille Ball’s cameraman — the great Karl Freund — revolutionized TV cinematography.
Recently, I was very impressed by a new Web TV show, Infamous broadcast on KoldCast.TV, which bills itself as The Premiere Web TV Network. The look of the show was great and the medium really matches the message.
Infamous is a sci-fi series that is a cross between X-Men and David Cronenberg’s Scanners. Shot in Shreveport, Louisiana, Infamous is peopled by comic book heroes, as is X-Men, except they — like a typical Cronenberg character — are rather down-at-the-heels.
Infamous fundamentally is the chronicle of some fairly ordinary extraordinary beings mucking their ways tough some extraordinary situations .
There’s an “Everyman” element to Infamous that’s something not found in Big Screen adaptations of comic book and graphic novels which is perfect for Internet TV. The limitations of Internet TV, the fact that is is small , works to the advantage of Infamous whereas adapting something epic like Superman for the Internet would not.
The strong suit of Infamous, aside from its atmosphere — the Cronenberg-ish sense of a world gone haywire due to dreadful organized forces outside the characters’ control — is the quality of the acting.
I talked to Joey Barto, one of the creators of the Infamous Web Series, via email. Barto — who directed 10 of the 13 episodes in the first season — told me that there is not much of a production budget, but luckily some very talented actors are attached to the show. The actors have created believably flawed characters, people that you could meet in real life with real problems, who are interesting due to their extraordinary abilities.
In addition to Emmy Award-winner Pruitt Taylor Vince, a terrific character actor who has given many memorable performances over the last 25 years in scores of movies and TV shows, Infamous boasts a rather extraordinary actor named John Chambers. Chambers’ flamboyant character Solomon, a man gifted with great psychic powers, serves as the dynamo as well as chief villain of the series, so far.
Solomon is irrepressible, even when the chips are down, and he is always “up” unless in the presence of the mysterious Patriarch, played by Vince. A powerful psychic, The Patriarch seems to be a godfather of an extended family of mutants who have been midwived by the evil Mandel Society.
Other villains, corporate-connected nasties, have come into the picture as the series has progressed. Infamous is unique in that we, the viewers, are dropped into the middle of its world and have to figure things out, just as the protagonist John/Jonah has to. Played by series co-creator Greg Washington, a Vin Diesel type (lacking Vin’s sub-James Bond patter), John/Jonah is a finely tuned fighting machine who has the ability, such as others in his “class” of superhero, to regenerate after being wounded or even killed. Unfortunately for John/Jonah, his mind has not regenerated after his last chrysalis, likely due to a mind wipe from Solomon.
Barto tells me the part of Solomon was written specifically with John Chambers in mind. Chambers also began handling some of the directing duties, helming whole episodes towards the end of the 13-part inaugural season. Pruitt Taylor Vince, who joined the cast for the last three episodes, also had a hand in directing.
“Pruitt brings so much energy to set with him, like a creative force,” Bartos told me. “He had a hand in any scene he was in, and we added scenes based on ideas he brought with him, much to the benefit of the series.”
Joey Barto said that the limitations of producing the series on a tight budget and restricted timelime have fostered collaboration. The role of director became more fluid, with the directorial duties passing between him and John Chambers.
“No egos were allowed on set,” Barto told me, “so when anyone had an idea it was weighed and measured equally and very often flew.”
He had praise for Chambers and Vince.
“I can’t adequately put into words how utterly amazing an experience it was to work with Pruitt and John,” he said. “They both brought so much to the show and I learned a great deal working alongside them both.’
Barto says that the “essence” on the Infamous set was one of “pure creative collaboration, and the role of director on Infamous was the person at the heart of that typhoon steering it towards completion.”
From my viewing of the series, this collaborative approach brings an energy and brio akin to the French New Wave films of the 1960s, which were informed by a pop sensibility. It’s fresh and exciting.
Screen Actors Guild
I also talked with John Chambers via email, who in addition to playing the major role of Solomon and directing some of the shows acts as a producer. I told him how much I admired Pruitt Taylor Vince and was pleased that such an accomplished actor was a member of the Infamous cast and how impressed I was that the Web series was sanctioned by the Screen Actors Guild (SAG).
Chambers told me that Pruitt Taylor Vince was a good friend of his and wanted to work on the show. In addition to acting and directing, Vince — a native of Louisiana who was born in Baton Rouge — teaches at Louisiana State University, Shreveport. He clearly is dedicated in fostering “The Liveliest” Art in his native state, which has a thriving film industry.
Before Vince joined the cast and crew for the last three episodes, Infamous was non-union. For him to join the cast meant that the production would have to work with SAG. To become a SAG-sanctioned show, the producers had to fill out paperwork, reading up on the union’s rules, and work with the assigned business rep from SAG provided.
It was a “wild ride” Chambers said to get the authorization in time to begin shooting with Vince as The Patriarch as the Infamous crew was working on producing the show. But the SAG autbhorization came through, and Vince was now part of the production.
John Chambers’ reaction was “Thanks God.” He believes that SAG certification “will take Infamous to the next level.”
Being a SAG “New Media” production, Chambers said, “is something that has opened doors for our show and our cast.”
As for having his friend Pruitt Taylor Vince on the set, “We soon realized that not only do we have a wonderful actor and friend to work and collaborate with,” Chambers said, adding “we are the first and only independent web series to have an Emmy winner in the cast and collaborating to create a great series.”
“I have never been so proud to work along side such professionals on a show where every twist and turn is organic, exciting and something that all can grow from. We are thankful to Pruitt in so many ways for joining our show.”
“When you work with someone that is so very skilled it makes everyone up their game and that is what it feels like since he has joined.”
One can say that John Chambers’ performance also helps bring the other actors to a higher level. That’s what a good actor does. As Karl Malden said about his friend Marlon Brando, “Marlon makes everybody look good.”
The good acting on Infamous makes everything look good.
Chambers is particularly impressive in scenes with James Palmer, a “scanner” whom the jive-talking Solomon calls “My brother” wbom we find out deep into the series, actually is Solomon’s brother.
Its one of the joys of Infamous, The Web Series, that we feel like we are collaborators with the actors and crew, discovering new things as we merrily roll along from episode to episode.