Digital Polyphony

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Liquid Nostalgia #29

The A-Team: A Look Back


Back in the days of a handful of television channels, rabbit-ear antennae and static-white noise riddled broadcast signals, the choices for a child as far as entertainment on television was fairly limited. For the most part, for someone below the age of ten, you had your Saturday morning cartoons and that was about it. But there was an occasional little show that would creep up in primetime that was, more or less, a live-action cartoon. There really is no better example of this than The A-Team, and it had the toyline to prove it.

It was campy and crazy the likes that really hadn’t been seen since the 1960s Batman television series. Truth is, it was absolutely ridiculous. I mean...just look at these guys:


Yet that’s why kids like me that grew up in the 80s absolutely loved it. For adults, it was the purest definition of a “guilty pleasure” if there ever was one. It lavished us with absurd dialogue, chase scenes, stunts, comedy one-liners, explosions and scary-looking black man that became a pop-culture phenomenon on his own on top of it all. It was a weekly one-hour action/adventure show that felt like a cheesy action/adventure movie every single week. Primetime television was mainly for adults with sitcoms and dramas. This was something made for anyone and everyone...though mostly boys and men who probably saw their share of cheesy 80s action movies and The Dukes of Hazzard by this point.

I was one such child. It was really only a handful of live-action shows like this that I watched, but more importantly that were appealing to kids to begin with. The Dukes of Hazzard I mentioned, Knight Rider certainly another, Airwolf and MacGyver had amazingly broad appeal, but none of those were quite as...cartoony and crazy....as the A-Team (yes, a talking car and a guy who can make bombs out of a click-pen were not as over-the-top as The A-Team).

The A-Team had “scope” to it. It was was if someone took Mission Impossible and cast it with Looney Tunes characters. To a child, this is what we always wanted. Hell, I'm 30 now and I still would want it.



A Brief History of the A-Team


After not finding success at ABC, producer Stephen J. Cannell (who you might remember best from his classic post-show title card) found a home at NBC and was pitched an idea by then NBC President Brandon Tartikoff. NBC wanted to find a show that would blend various genre elements of shows such as Mission Impossible and movies like The Dirty Dozen or The Magnificent Seven.

With producing and writing partner Frank Lupo, Cannell delivered the idea of The A-Team: mercenaries for hire that always do the right thing. It would intentionally test the limits of realism, noted in a running gag throughout the series where people would simply walk away from horrible car crashes without a scratch. It was intentionally over the top and cartoonish, this take is what gave the A-Team an identity and what drew most people to it.


George Peppard was cast as the “leader” of the A-Team, Hannibal Smith, after the original consideration, James Coburn, fell through. Tim Dunigan was originally cast as Face, going as far as to shoot the pilot, but was recast by Dirk Benedict who played him for the series while Dwight Schultz was cast as Murdock. Mr. T was intended to be in the show from the vary beginning. BA Baracus was written specifically for him.

Mr. T soon became the face of the show, much to the chagrin of George Peppeard. Their dislike for each other on the set has been well documented, ranging from acting ability to pay (Mr. T being the highest paid actor on the show).

The A-Team received one of the best lead-ins you could ask for. It aired on January 23, 1983, right after the Super Bowl. That, and a bombardment of advertising and promotion, made the show a huge success right out of the gate. For the next four years, it would be a pop-culture phenomenon with a huge fan following, product and toy marketing, publicity tours and rating successes (at least through season 4, it’s noted Season 4 was the beginning was the “downslide” of the series and the strain between Peppard and Mr. T was at an all0time high).

The series went for five total seasons and delivered 97 episodes. It was nominated for three Emmys...for sound mixing.


Top Ten Awesome and Memorable Things About The A-Team


Now me going through 97 episodes is pretty out of the question, so here I’ve decided to pull back into my memories and ask myself “what were the weirdest and crazies moments I personally remember from this show?” Well, I could only think of about six on my own, the rest are filler...hold on to your butts.


10: Boy George Needs Help (In The Show Too)

Ok, this one is actually a pretty famous one, so I would be remiss to not have it on this list. Boy George, yes that Boy George, had a guest appearance in The A-Team. He also sings Karma Chamelon as well so it's got that going for it too. Guest slots were nothing new to the show. Hulk Hogan (and other wrestlers), Isaac Hayes, Pat Sayjak and Joe Namath all had little cameos. Boy George, though, is so drastically out place that only a video could do it justice to present the awkwardness of it:

 

 


9:Anytime Hannibal Smith would light a cigar to think                      (or in front of a perfectly timed explosion)

This happened more often than not, and is probably the most defining trait of the character. A cigar, a big grin, a light and either one of two things: Smith is going to do some thinking, or some shit just blew up. It’s like a before and after of sex with him. It basically says “yeah...this is going to happen” or “yeah...that just happened.” Either way, with Smith it’s going to happen whether you want it to or not. He always loved it when a plan came together.

 


8: One Million Bullets and You Can't Hit a Damn Thing

As most know, The A-Team never killed anyone. People did die in the show, usually for story purposes, but they personally never shot anyone or sent them to their deaths. As I said, it's a cartoon. All those times you would see Wile E Coyote fall off a cliff or Daffy get his beak shot off? Imagine that here.

What this does, then, is create a show with absolutely no limit. That, folks, is why we loved it. Anything and everything could happen. It was that sense of "Holy shit, what are they going to do next?" that got us watching every week (for at least four of the five seasons, the fifth season was...strange...and truth is I didn't watch much of it when doing this article due to its reputation). 


7: That Sweet-Ass Ride

Sure, it wasn't quite as fancy as a KITT or full of gadgets like something James Bond would drive, but who would have thought a simple black van with a single red stripe would be so iconic. This was B.A's baby, so I better not diss it too much otherwise I'll be a pitied fool. According to my research of five minutes on Wikipedia, this was a 1983 GMC G-Series, had radio and telephone transmission capabilities, customized shocks, bulletproof and shag carpet.

Also, this was one of my favorite toys, image to the right. On a side note, I could never get that tent to work correctly, or how to even use it, and I never did get the Murdoch figure. 


6: B.A. Didn't Like Flying, Fool!

I loved the movie's take on this, because they really got it spot on. B.A. hates flying and his team members more or less made his life a living hell as a result. They would trick him into flying, get him stuck in box or shipping crate, knock him out...whatever they had to do to get him on a plane. To see this guy that is touch as nails whimper and whine like a kid when it came to flying was absolutely hilarious and it was one of the great running gags of the series.

This leads to...


5: The Chemistry

Despite whatever off-screen turmoil might have been around, one thing was apparent and consistent: these characters had amazing chemistry on screen.  I think it was the addition of humor to the mix that made this unit feel like friends at some party than an elite Special Forces squad. Watching the first few seasons, hell even the first few episodes alone, you automatically get a sense of unity amongst this motley crue. It's something that television and movies either really hit on, or really miss completely (animation aside, here we needed actors to do it all live and in person, and despite off-screen issues they pulled it off for five seasons). The added humor, the not taking itself too seriously, the complete lack of limits allows these characters to do one thing: have fun. What does fun create? Chemistry. That chemistry transitions to us watching it. 


4: Murdock is a Madman

Mr. T's B.A. may have received all the cover stories, but that really had more to do with Mr. T himself - not necessarily the character. For me, the best and completely nuts/wild card of The A-Team is H.M. "Howlin Mad" Murdock - a character that, at one point, was close to being written out because producers thought that, even for this over-the-top show, he was way, way over-the-top. Ah, but that's why I and a lot of other people loved him. Delusions of grandeur (though he can certainly back it up with his piloting skills), a fragmented memory, a complete lack of self-preservation and and even more complete lack of awareness of anything that's going on yet having an incredible IQ and knowledge of facts, Murdock, to me, took the show to a new level. Dwight Schultz absolutely owned what is probably the best written character in the show.


3: The Many One-Liners of B.A. Baracus

When someone does a Mr. T parody, they are probably going to be quoting some A-Team lines. Now Mr. T was pretty much a "go" for the show before it even began production. So how much of Mr. T influenced BA and how much of BA influenced Mr. T we can't really be sure. I like to look at it as a symbiotic relationship - you can't have one without the other. BA was defined by Mr. T, and Mr. T by BA. Lines about fools, jibber-jabbin and knuckle sandwiches are all found in The A-Team, and here's a nice little compilation in poor quality I was able to scrounge up:

 


2: George Peppard is Awesome

Let me tell you something about George Peppard and his character, Hannibal Smith: they're pretty much the same guy. People may not be able to distinguish the B.A. character with Mr. T? Ha, I say! That's solely a personality. George Peppard was the living-breathing Hannibal Smith. He was intelligent, suave, a leader, a womanizer, served in the Marines, smoked like a chimney and was a bit of a dick while doing it all. In high school he found he was good at two things: sports and acting. Despite his family's wishes for him to become a contractor like his father, he enlisted in the Marines at age 17, rose to the rank of Corporal before deciding he wanted to get back to his passion of acting. After attending college and working odd jobs such as a mechanic and Radio DJ, Peppard's father passed away. Peppard promptly dropped out of college to finish his father's dream project to build 15 homes. I like to think that Peppard did all this over the course of a summer with his bare hands, but most likely he organized it to happen. He returned to studying acting, including a stint at the Actor's Studio with legendary acting coach Lee Strasberg, and also began to start drinking. Heavily. For the next few decades, though, his career rose quickly with lead roles and major pictures in Hollywood. The drinking began to take its toll, however. 

In 1978 he overcame alcoholism, Peppard always being open about his rather violent ways and regretting them, and his career began anew, not least of which being the leader of the very television show this entire article is about. His notoriety of being difficult to work with, however, didn't change, however he was as well-known with The A-Team as he was during the height of his career in the late 50s and 60s. Some idiots at the time saw a star's transition from film to television as a step down, he had dabbled in television in the years prior to The A-Team with little success.Peppard, of course, didn't give a shit what they though. He, as always, did his own thing and continued on until Hannibal came calling.

Also, in 1992 he told a cancerous tumor on his lung to go fuck itself and had it cut out - still working during this time. He smartly stopped smoking after that. Unfortunately, he only had two more years left before passing away in 1994.

In other words, let me put it this way: when you see an actor "act," you can sometimes see strands of truth on who they are and what they stand for. Hannibal Smith is the ID version of everything George Peppard was. It was him completely uninhibited, taking elements of his own life and personality and turning the dial up until it broke. 


1: More Self Aware Than You Realize

Here's the thing about The A-Team that, perhaps, other shows that tried the same formula didn't quite get: it knew exactly what it was doing. You know sometimes you might watch a show or movie from the 1980s with action and explosions and many a gun-shots, bullets every which way and then they try to weigh it down with sincerity or, god-forbid, a plot? The A-Team was never, ever intended to even attempt those things. It wanted to be, as Peppard once said "and out of control freight train," and that's exactly what it was.That's how it was conceived, written and executed, perhaps a bit too well.

It's basically saying: we're not in this for awards or critical acceptance. We're here to do crazy shit.

This complete removal of any preconception of wanting to be "serious" or "real" allowed the writers to create stories that naturally grew from the concept of complete lunacy. Sure, you can put a car chase in a show...but let's take it up a notch and have a guy in a wedding dress hanging out of the back shooting a machine gun. There was a line, then there was a line to be crossed. To the writers and creators, this wasn't accident. They didn't' set out to make a "good" show, they set out to make a show that had no boundaries and no limits from the very beginning. The best thing is, it wasn't just the writers either. It was the producers who backed it 100% and gave it a chance and it was especially the actors that were completely in on it and ended up creating some of the most iconic characters in television history as a result. it seems chaotic and insane, but it was directed chaos. Every line, every crazy fight, every hand gesture and cigar puff was planned and we absolutely ate it up. When something is so intentionally crazy, you just have to love it.


 

And people thought the movie from a year ago was stupid? It makes me think they never actually watched the show. Hell, the movie was absurdly spot-on, which is why I actually liked it.

The A-Team was probably one of the most purely entertaining shows of the 1980s, however it wasn’t perfect. It’s one of those things where you say “it is what it is” and kind of just leave it at that. It rarely turned dramatic or serious, each episode followed the same formula with no deviation, there were no over-arching stories or plots and there was certainly little in terms of character development or background. They were cartoon characters, they didn’t need that. Season five, which I’ve avoided, is often considered the worst of the lot. The writers, no longer the creators handling the show, tried some new things and it simply didn’t fit the bill and the show was eventually canceled, though it did get a proper finale and overall brought things to an end.


My personal memories, before I sat and re-watched a lot of the episodes (only about 40 in the first three seasons, some from the fourth), were more emotional than specific. I remembered the “coolness” of it. I remembered the insanity. Specific plots and stories? Honestly, because many were so in-line with the formula, I could barely remember any outside of the pilot episodes, the prison and when Mr. T burst through the doors of a bar and he and Hannibal beat up a bunch of Mexicans.

The show is most certainly a product of its time. I don't think television execs would ever let something so absolutely crazy get on the air again. Even in 1983 it was a risk, but with the sense of "manly men with guns" and Rocky and Rambo and the countless 80s action movies that were making money, it fit right into the culture. Now people have expectations too high for television to get this thing greenlit.

But it came, it damn sure conquered seeing as it amassed a huge cult following and fanbase and especially that it's still well-known to this day, enough to be parodied in a number of shows and have an entire film based on it twenty five after it was on the air. It was only on for five seasons yet absolutely engrained itself into the memories of our society. Even those that have never watched a single episode at least know of it. If something with such an impact on our culture and such an insight into a point in time in our pop-culture history like The A-Team isn't worth being nostalgic about, then I don't know what is.

 

 

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