Cult TV: The A-Team

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In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit…

Can you consider The A-Team “Cult TV?” Probably not.  When the first episode premiered in 1983, it garnered the highest ratings NBC had seen in five years.  In its prime, it reached 20.1 million households and spawned a line of action figures, a cartoon show, an Atari video game, and even a breakfast cereal.  So, maybe Cult is wrong branding for something like this.  But strictly cult or not, John Smith and his happy band of mercenaries defined a generation of television and, even a quarter-century later, some of us still get on the jazz when we hear the theme song.

These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground…

Col. John Smith (George Peppard)

The Tactician
His dog tags say John Smith, but those who know him call him Hannibal.  He’s smart, crafty, and as tough as nails, but what else would you expect from the guy in charge of an outfit like the A-Team?  Hannibal was never the character who got the most attention on the show, but, for my money, he’s the reason that The A-Team worked.  Played by the sorely underrated George Peppard as a constantly smirking, constantly thinking man of action, you never doubt that Hannibal is a field commander extraordinaire.  With a cigar between his teeth and a disguise in his back pocket, Hannibal is a master strategist who keeps The A-Team alive and two steps ahead of their enemies.

Sgt. Bosco Albert Baracus (Mr T)

The Muscle
Although Hannibal was intended to be the star of the show, ask a random person what they remember about The A-Team, and you’ll almost exclusively get back one answer: Mr. T.  T played B. A. Baracus, the team’s wheelman, mechanical genius, and all-around brick wall.  He loves his mother, his van, and whole milk (which is often drugged by his teammates, because B.A. hates to fly).  Other than that, he’s got the same gold, the same feathers, the same mohawk on his head. In short, B.A. is really the same Mr. T we’ve known and loved for nigh-on thirty years now.  Kids took to him instantly and B.A. quickly became the show’s mascot.  Mr. T has never been much of an actor (sorry, T), but in the context of the show’s cartoonish insanity, he fits perfectly.

The Con Man
Unlike Hannibal, who likes nothing more than a good cigar and a plan that comes together, or B.A., who just wants his van and his moo juice, Templeton “Faceman” Peck enjoys the finer things in life.  If he wasn’t on the run, he’d be surrounded by pretty girls, fine suits, and fast cars.  As the A-Team’s scrounger, it’s his job to make things happen.  He gets the supplies they need and makes the contacts they depend on.  He’s the first in and last out of undercover assignments, and, on those occasions where they need to get information from a beautiful female enemy agent, he’s always at the top of the list.

The Pilot
The final member of the A-Team isn’t actually on the run at all.  H.M. “Howling Mad” Murdock was called the best chopper pilot in Vietnam, but after his friends were arrested, he was declared insane by the VA and locked up in an institution.  Much to the chagrin of the hospital orderlies, he is now routinely busted out of his room by the A-Team for missions, though he usually strolls back sometimes later once he’s done.  Played with childish glee by Dwight Schultz, Murdock often wrestles with a different psychosis each episode, including talking to inanimate objects, imitating cartoon characters, and desperately trying to train his invisible dog, Billy.  It’s never totally clear just how crazy Murdock really is and how much it he’s faking, but, as Joseph Heller would tell you, just the fact that he keeps getting in the cockpit should tell you something.

Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune…

The A-Team wasn’t a show with overarching storylines or characters who went through intense personal changes.  It didn’t want to be deep or mature or realistic.  The opening credits told you everything you needed to know:  The A-Team wanted to blow stuff up, triumphantly punish bad guys, and maybe one day clear their names. They were heroes on the run that do good deeds, make crazy plans, and get away by the skin of their teeth.

Each episode (except for the rare two-parter and ultra-rare flashback story) follows a pretty reliable formula: It opens with this week’s victims, usually some helpless villagers or street children or something, being tormented by a gang of evil pimps and slumlords.  One of the villagers/children/whatever has finally had enough/gotten away and tracks down the A-Team to ask for help.  Though their hiring fees are substantial, Hannibal is just as likely to take on a case pro-bono, so he agrees to get the team together (possibly including reporter Amy Allen or another of their interchangeable female costars) and help the pathetic locals kick some butt.

They roll into town and have one or two successful brushes (possibly undercover) with the evil drug dealers.  Hannibal then formulates a Rube Goldbergianly complex plan that very nearly works, except one of them/all of them/a small child/a love interest winds up captured, bringing everything to a halt.  At some point, the A-Team finds themselves alone in a small room full of knick-knacks while the evil diamond smugglers figures out what to do next.  Running out of time, B.A. welds together some sort of vehicle or weapon that breaks them out of captivity and helps them take the evil South American commandos by surprise and defeat them once and for all.  There are several roundhouse punches, and anything that can explode, does.  Finally, Hannibal lights a fresh cigar and reminds us how much he loves it when a plan comes together.

Also, at some point the US Army may have been alerted, forcing the A-Team to make a last minute escape where lots of Army vehicles end up being driven into a lake.

The show went on like this for a solid two seasons, garnering great ratings but considerable disapproval from parenting groups.  For what it’s worth, I never really bought into that.  The show is put on with a great sense of fun and there’s very rarely any real sense of tension or fear. It has lots of gunfire, but very rarely does anyone get hit.  It has lots of explosions and car crashes, but you always see the bad guys stumble away a little woozy but essentially unharmed.  In other words, there is a lot of action, but very little violence.  On-screen death or injury, when they happen, are treated very seriously and often become the focal point of the episode.

Anyway, somewhere around 1985, a noticeable change started to come over the show.  There were a lot more solo adventures.  There were a number of instances where the team splits up and characters spend most of the episode in pairs or alone. There are even dialogue sequences where conversations are accomplished by talking heads instead of two-shots or group shots.  In other words, the A-Team started to feel a little less like a team.

Behind the scenes, the show’s Lennon and McCartney were having problems.  It seems that George Peppard had only agreed to do television with the understanding that his character was the star of the show.  Yet, by the end of Season 2 it was clear that Mr. T was the reason people were tuning in each week.  Peppard was notorious for being difficult to work with when he was unhappy and his bitterness at T’s success was not well-hidden.  Soon, T became equally antagonistic toward his costar and, by next season, the two actors weren’t speaking.  Reportedly, by the middle of Season 3 they refused to be in the same room together.

The upside of all this was that Season 4 of The A-Team became the Year of Guest Stars.  Literally, it seems like they grabbed anyone they could get their hands on: Della Reese, Isaac Hayes, Rick James, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, Hulk Hogan—twice! Did you ever want to see Faceman and Murdock scam Wheel of Fortune?  It’s in Season 4.  Did you ever want to see Boy George stoned out of his mind battling evil rednecks?  Or Mr. T dancing to Karma Chameleon?  It’s in Season 4.  It’s episode after episode of the finest type of eighties insanity.

Of course, the other major reason that Season 4 gets remembered is that it ends with the unthinkable: the A-Team got captured.  Yes, after 14 years and 85 episodes, our heroes were finally cornered by the Army and the jig was up.  In a three-part season premiere, Hannibal, Faceman, and B.A. face a military tribunal, barely manage to avoid execution, and finally wind up in the employ of the mysterious Hunt Stockwell (Robert Vaughn), who runs an unnamed government agency.  Rather than life on the run, the team now lives together in a safe house with Murdock (declared sane!) and works covert missions for Stockwell, who promises presidential pardons for everyone once he’s done with them.

The A-Team also gained a new team member for Season 5: Frankie “Dishpan” Santana (Eddie Velez), the new electronics and explosives expert.  I don’t know if it was the painfully obvious shoehorning in of a new character or if the electronics angle was simply too far ahead of it’s time, but fans didn’t buy Frankie for a second and he quickly joined Cousin Oliver and 3J as an unmistakble symbol of a show that has gone on for far too long.

Unfortunately, the changes did nothing to boost the falling ratings and The A-Team was canceled thirteen episodes into the season.  The team never received their pardons and never got to clear their names.  They didn’t have a series finale or a big TV-movie sendoff.  One Friday, The A-Team simply stopped.

However, despite the show’s small, sad ending and despite the critics’ unrelenting nastiness (calling it, among other things, “stupid,” “primitive,” and “shockingly disrespectful toward the scars of Vietnam”), The A-Team became an inescapable touchstone of the 1980s.  It wasn’t sophisticated and it wasn’t profound.  It was a comic book.  A big, dumb, macho comic book played out on TV every week, full of explosions and adventures and heroes and villains.  And that’s just the way we liked it.

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire…

12 comments

    • I’m actually tweaking Season 4 right now. I intend to finish the series and all the movies by the end of the year, so, barring any more hiccups, you should start seeing them roll out fairly regularly. Until then: Courage.

  1. extremely well put. altho i’m watching season 5 right now and very disappointed to hear theres no satisfying ending! 😦 – but i guess then i can go back and watch it all over again. i assumed the rift was between mr. t and Dirk! i hated that for a while the team kinda “split” into 2. BA always seemed to be with murdock which was odd! it really ruined the show for me. but i still LOVE it to pieces 🙂

  2. I didn’t read anything about Peppard and T making up, but I feel like the awkwardness lessened noticeably by the end of Season 4. It’s just a shame that’s when the scripts really started to go downhill. I know a reunion show was in the works until Peppard died in 1994, so I guess things had at least been smoothed over by then.

    • Not that I’ve seen (and I imagine it would have been pretty well publicized if Dwight Schultz did). IMDb lists two stunt pilots for the show: Art Scholl was in an unspecified number of episodes between 1982-1984 and Charles A Tamburro did 29 episodes between 1983-1986. I’m assuming those are your guys.

  3. Oh ok. Maybe it’s just me, but it seems like Mr. T was the character with the least lines. It didn’t seem like the writers didn’t ever really have that long of a script for him.

  4. Heh!
    Loved this show! In Poland, one of the first commercial TV channels ran it on endless loop throughout early nineties. I was what, 13? and had a something of a crush on Murdock, but mainly enjoyed it for the sheer audacity of the plot.
    You guys gonna do the new movie anytime in the future? Wasn’t half bad, IMHO.

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