I would like, if I may, to take you on a strange journey. Let’s go back in time to the 1980s. It was a time of neon and pop music, of big hair and big egos, of memorable if lamentable fashion choices, when MTV still actually had something to do with music, and kids came home from school to watch cartoons all afternoon. I’ve already commented upon many such shows, and now here’s another. In the harmful tradition of gendered marketing, this is about a show to sell dolls that was aimed squarely at little girls who worshiped Madonna (the singer) and dressed like Cyndi Lauper – Jem.
Does anyone else have the problem where the “Indiana Jones” theme turns into “The A-Team” theme in their heads? No one else? Just me? Okay, well, there you go.
This show started in the early 80s when nearly all dramas were the brain-child of the late great producer Stephen Cannell. Like many shows in the 80s, this one used the intro to helpfully narrate the conceit. “Ten years ago (so Vietnam) a crack commando troop was sentenced to military prison for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped and fled to the Los Angeles underground. If you have the money, and you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.” Or roughly that. Also, it turned out they did commit the crime, but were under orders to do so, and the orders were subsequently lost or destroyed. And there was never any explanation of what the “Los Angeles underground” was either (it sounds like it should be a level of some first-person shooter). Anyway, for a show about ex-Vietnam military fugitive mercenaries, there was surprisingly little blood and almost no one ever died or even got shot. The show ended with the A-Team barely evading the authorities, until the mid-point of the series in which they started working for the military. I didn’t like that premise as much.
The group was a four-man band, with occasional sidekick or companion of the episode (or perhaps more of a five-man band with a rotating Chick). You may argue that perhaps I have the Lancer and Smart Guy mixed up, but I think there’s no doubt as to the other two. And honestly, the did switch things up a bit in the show so these tropes aren’t absolute.
The Leader – Col. John “Hannibal” Smith (after the great general). A distinguished gentleman in his 50s with a penchant for cigars, elaborate (and not always convincing) disguises, and overly complicated plans that usually came together. Interestingly, when Hannibal means business, he’ll put gloves on, if he’s not already wearing them. Woe be to the bad guy if Hannibal puts his gloves on while they’re talking. Often accused by other members of “getting on the jazz.” Oh, sure, sometimes even he’s put off by Murdock’s antics. But he really, really enjoys the scheming and in particular the winning. He is never the only sane man; in his way, he’s as crazy as Murdock.
“Ever notice you run into the nicest people in tanks?”
The Lancer – Lt. (I don’t know if it’s first or second) Templeton “Face Man” Peck. Con-man, grifter, ladies’ man, but not exactly a gentleman. He could get nearly anything if given enough time. Often put upon for his skills in acquiring what was required for the mission. Typically tried to avoid being punched in the face, for obvious reasons. In certain circumstances, he was the only sane man. However, in other circumstances, Face got on best with Murdock of any the team. My impression was that Face served as a sniper in Vietnam (which is part of the Lancer trope).
“Don’t smile at me like that! That’s not even a smile; it’s just a bunch of teeth playing with my mind!”
The Smart Guy (and probably a Cloudcuckoolander as well) – Captain H.M. Murdock (I never found out his real name; in the show he said it stood for “Howling Mad”). He can pilot anything with wings, and sometimes things without wings, and sometimes things he’s built from scrap. Partially responsible for B.A.’s fear of flying, perhaps not entirely without cause, but then again, their missions are sometimes pretty dangerous and crashing is always a risk.
“No, no, no, no! I merely relocated the aircraft with extreme prejudice because of a total loss of thrust and lift functions!!!”
He was actually not on the lam. He was a patient in the VA hospital’s psychiatric wing. Even as a kid, I always thought Murdock acted like a sane guy who only has a dim idea of how crazy people behave. But as I watch the show now, I see the writers snuck in some phrases that indicate that while Murdock probably acts crazier than he is, he actually probably is suffering from severe PTSD. He’s also the only one who still calls Hannibal “sir.”
“I’m not nuts! I’m condiments! I got promoted!”
The Big Guy – Sgt. (again, I don’t know precisely what rank) B.A. Baracus (the incomparable Mr. T). He was the big guy. He wore about seventy pounds of gold jewelry between the rings and necklaces. So ’80s he could not be more ’80s. In fights, he tended to throw people over tables and bars and take punches like they were nothing. And yet he was quite soft-hearted, especially when it came to children. And he was also deathly afraid of flying, although with Murdock as the pilot, I’m not sure I could blame him. This lead to the rest of the team drugging him, tricking him, or outright knocking him unconscious to get him on a plane. Probably the most sane man on the team and least tolerant of Murdock.
“Shut up, fool!”
The Chick – The first season (and some of the second) they also had Amy Amanda Allen (Triple A) who was the stereotypical plucky girl reporter (and how she didn’t end up in Levinworth herself I’ll never know). She often helped the A-Team find cases and then went on the mission to report about it. She left somewhere in the second or third season and there were a couple of replacements, but eventually this band member was dropped. This is actually too bad as she ended up in danger far less often than say, Face.
Amy – “Hannibal’s plans never work right. They just work.”
The Bad Guy – There were two types of Bad Guys: the villain of the day, and the military.
a) The villain of the day was of course the main antagonist in the team’s mission. Drug lords, corrupt small-town police, mobsters, and so on, tended to be on the receiving end of Hannibal’s plans. One would think, in fact, every small town was at the mercy of a corrupt sheriff if this show was anything to go on.
b) The A-Team was pursued by the military police and sometimes would almost nearly get caught, until they actually got caught and were forced to work for the military. The MPs weren’t really bad guys. The A-Team were fugitives as far as they knew. They were just trying to do their jobs and weren’t adverse to taking care of the villain of the day if their paths should cross.
Team gets mission (most episodes started with Hannibal in an elaborate disguise to feel out his client to make sure they weren’t feds). Then they set out to rescue someone or find something which usually involved an elaborate con. Sometimes they had to start with an elaborate con just to break Murdock out of the hospital, although sometimes the show started with him already busted out, or him just flat-out making a run for it. The bad guys actually think they can win against the team. Hannibal makes a plan. It may or may not go right (actually, it probably won’t go right). The military may or may not show up to attempt to thwart them. The team will probably have to build something awesomely implausible, or implausibly awesome. And in the end the plan comes together. Also, despite lots of gunfire (I mean LOTS) no one ever dies. No one even gets shot. Well, that’s not exactly true. A couple of times the team members do get shot but that’s because the gunshot is a plot point.
Ridiculous ’80s fun. It was disposable. It was all in good fun. And it’s still fun to watch. The show didn’t take itself too seriously, which seems to a rarity these days. Cars jumped over obviously hidden ramps, lots of stock footage was used, huge explosions could be set off with the merest of light breezes if that made the fight scene more awesome. Heck, the intro (which I linked to) included a Cylon walking past Face, which is an inside joke/reference to the actor’s work on the (at that time) recent series “Battlestar Galactica.” Oh, sure, the acting isn’t the best in the world. And logically, of course, the A-Team’s van is only one of the most distinctive vehicles ever and should have been easy to track. And pretty much everything they ever built probably wouldn’t actually work. When the villains did manage to capture the A-team, they never seemed to learn not to put the highly trained crack military unit in a room full of everything they need to escape (although I suppose they didn’t already know that; however, once the ARMY locked them an army base’s ARMORY). It’s quite formulaic, which is unfortunate since some episodes would have been more interesting if they had deviated from the formula. And sure, it would have been nice to have a female character who was not the token Chick (and following Amy’s exit, any steady female character [as opposed to Face’s date of the day] would have bene nice too). But Hannibal and Face are smugness personified, Murdock is crazy, or maybe not, but entertaining either way, and B.A. is sheer ’80s awesomeness personified. I wouldn’t recommend watching too many episodes in a row, or thinking too hard about the plotholes (of which there were many). Still, it’s upbeat and enjoyable and I really appreciate that. If you need a fun show to watch, and you can find it on Netflix, maybe you can watch… the A-Team!