Saturday 16 April 2016

The A-Team, season 1 (1983)

With its over-the-top but very cartoonish violence and its general air of mayhem and craziness The A-Team became one of the legendary cult TV series of the 80s. It ran on NBC from 1983 to 1987.

Mercenaries had figured in several great cult movies of the late 60s and 70s such as Dark of the Sun and The Wild Geese so it was perhaps only a matter of time before they featured in an action adventure TV series. The A-Team is a US Special Forces unit that had served in Vietnam but one of their more spectacular missions went badly wrong. Actually the mission was a success but the officer who ordered the mission got himself killed so the team had no proof that their mission was authorised, and as a result they found themselves facing a court-martial. They escaped from custody before the court-martial could be convened and now they make their living as commandos-for-hire.

The A-Team comprises Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard), mechanical wizard Sergeant B. A. Baracus (Mr T), smooth-talking con-man Lieutenant Templeton "Face" Peck (played by Tim Dunigan in the pilot and by Dirk Benedict in the series) and insane (literally insane) pilot “Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz). 

Their nemesis is military policeman Colonel Lynch (William Lucking) who is obsessed with tracking them down and forcing them to face that court-martial.

The pilot episode, Mexican Slayride, gives us much of the background. Nobody is really sure the A-Team even exists but feisty girl reporter Amy Allen (Melinda Culea) believes that they do. And she just happens to need a team of commandos. Fellow reporter Al Massey (William Windom) has been kidnapped by a gang of Mexican bandits. Amy is determined to free him. Massey had discovered something big, something that was more than just a simple gang of bandits.

The A-Team is willing to help her although they do expect to receive a token payment - of $150,000. Transportation to Mexico won’t be a problem. They will just “borrow” a Gulfstream executive jet. The big problem will be persuading B. A. Baracus to board the jet. He is terrified of flying and their usual method is to forcibly drug him and then strap him down to his seat (he needs to be strapped down so he won’t kill them when he regains consciousness). Getting the other equipment they will need involves conning the Mexican Film Commission into thinking they’re big time Hollywood film-makers and they need a few simple props for their movie - just little things like a crop-dusting aircraft, some armour plate and perhaps an artillery piece or two. 

Mexican Slayride is a non-stop roller coaster ride of craziness and mayhem involving the expenditure of thousands of rounds of ammunition and countless explosions and wrecked vehicles. It establishes one of the this show’s trademarks - despite all the shooting and all the stuff getting blown up nobody ever seems to get seriously hurt. There’s an immense amount of violence but no blood. 

This first season covers many of the favourite obsessions of its time period. In Children of Jamestown it’s a religious cult. In Pros and Cons it’s the ever-popular Evil Redneck Cops in the Deep South and in A Small and Deadly War it’s corrupt cops (although the series goes to extraordinary lengths to assure us over and over again but it’s just a Few Bad Apples). 

Breaking someone out of captivity is a trope that the series did tend to over-use just a little (although having said that I have to admit that The A-Team usually does this with style) so A Small and Deadly War is all the more refreshing for avoiding that particular concept.

Black Day at Bad Rock (a nod to the 1950s Spencer Tracy movie Bad Day at Black Rock) covers another obsession of the day - biker gangs. B. A. has been shot up in an operation and the team stops at a small California town to get medical help for him but the doctor thinks it’s a bit strange that his friends claim it was a hunting accident - what kind of game do you hunt with a .50 cal machine-gun? She calls the cops and Hannibal and Face get themselves arrested just as a biker gang is about to descend upon the town. Much mayhem naturally ensues.

The Rabbit Who Ate Las Vegas sees the A-Team up against gambling racketeers. A brilliant mathematician has invented a fool-proof method for beating the odds at the gambling tables and not surprisingly the gambling bosses take a very dim view of this. The A-Team have to rescue the mathematician.

The Out-of-Towners is basically another retelling of The Seven Samurai with frightened storekeepers in Manhattan employing the A-Team to protect them against the oppression of extortion racketeers. West Coast Turnaround sees the team helping out a farmer who can’t get his produce to market. Not much of a story this time and this is definitely a lesser episode. 

A mission in Guatemala goes badly wrong for the A-Team in Holiday in the Hills. Murdock manages to get them out but their aircraft crashes. Maybe stealing an aircraft that was due for repair was not such a great idea? They crash in South Carolina only to find themselves hunted by hillbillies. Murdock has a plan for getting them out. He’s seen the movie Flight of the Phoenix and he figures that if survivors of a plane crash in a movie can build a new one out of the wreckage then they should be able to do the same thing.

In One More Time we’re back to the breaking out of captivity thing again although this time instead of having to worry about being pursued by the US Government they’re working for the government. Which can be even worse. Till Death Do Us Part looks like being yet another retread of the same basic trope but there’s end up being more to the story. And the helicopter chase is pretty cool. 

The first season of The A-Team works because it starts out being an outlandish cartoonish adventure romp series and that’s what it remains. The temptation to take itself even moderately seriously is valiantly resisted. It’s unashamedly and defiantly silly.

The acting is perfect. OK, maybe Dwight Schultz pushes the crazy thing a bit too hard at times but he manages to be genuinely amusing. Dirk Benedict is delightfully smooth and charming. Mr T is superb. B. A. Baracus is a big scary intimidating guy and he’s plenty tough when he needs to be but underneath he’s a big softie. Mr T gets this across without ever crossing the line into over-sentimentality. George Peppard chews every piece of scenery he can get his hands on. This is very different to his earlier TV hit Banacek although Peppard's trademark self-confidence is equally apparent in both series. All the characters are caricatures but they’re meant to be. They’re cartoon characters and all the cast members understand this and play it accordingly.

The stunts are nothing if not spectacular. They must have wrecked hundreds of cars and other assorted vehicles making this series. No episode is complete without its full complement of explosions and cars flying through the air. The stunts, like everything else, are deliberately exaggerated and cartoonish and that’s why they work.

The A-Team is a roller-coaster ride of non-stop mayhem all done with tongue planted firmly in cheek. Terrific fun and as long as you don’t take it the slightest bit seriously it’s highly recommended.

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