Thursday 28 January 2021

The A-Team season 3 (1984-85)

The A-Team returned for its third season in 1984. It was the formula precisely as before. It was a formula that was working so presumably there was no reason to change it. Eventually, inevitably, the formula was going to wear thin but at this stage it’s still working just fine. Disaster would finally strike in season four as the formula started to grow stale and the audience started to evaporate but during the third season the series was still riding high in the ratings.

The formula worked mainly due to sheer exuberance plus the inspired performances of the four regulars - George Peppard as Colonel Hannibal Smith, Dirk Benedict as Templeton Peck (The Face), Dwight Schlutz as Howling Mad Murdock and of course Mr T as B.A. Baracus.

If you try to pick a favourite character then you’re really missing the point. It was the combination of four wildly different characters played by four wildly different actors who somehow just had the right chemistry that made The A-Team work. There is simply no way any of the four leads could have been successfully replaced.

Melinda Culea, who played Amy, had departed during the second season (which I think was rather unfortunate). The series really needed a female cast member to add a bit of balance so Marla Heasley as Tawnia Baker was brought in as a semi-regular. Unfortunately she didn’t last long.

Of course this series was always going to run out of steam eventually. The formula was really quite rigid. It’s amazing that for three seasons, even with plots that were often pretty similar and with stunts that followed similar patterns as well ways were found to inject enough variety into that formula to keep things interesting. Somehow new ways were found to con B.A. into flying even though flying was the one thing he feared. New ways were found to bust Murdock out of the psych ward at the Veterans’ Hospital. Murdock found new ways to enrage B.A. and to express his craziness. Hannibal was still coming up with outlandish disguises. New ways were found for the A-Team to evade the Military Police. It couldn’t last but in season three these things still manage to be genuinely amusing.

There are a few signs that maybe the formula was going to start wearing thin sooner rather than later. There are a few episodes that are enjoyable enough but you start to notice at times that the spark is not quite there. There are too many episodes where the writers have been content to recycle the same plot. The episodes which work are the ones that vary the formula a little, or have settings that are colourful enough to make things interesting (just as the Wild West Show episode).

With all the mayhem and the explosions and the gunplay no-one ever gets badly hurt. The A-Team was both ultra-violent and yet not truly violent at all. Curiously enough this upset a lot of people at the time. They either felt there was too much violence or they felt that somehow there was something immoral about violence in which nobody gets hurt. It was a series that contrived to combine violence and wholesomeness.

The A-Team is supposed to be a bunch of urban mercenaries but they only ever take on cases where there are bad guys who need to be taken down. They’re mercenaries with morals. And they only work for people who really need help - rich people have plenty of other options. That’s about as close as the series ever comes to having a political subtext - they’re on the side of the little guy. Of course the people they work for usually don’t have much money but The A-Team doesn’t care too much about money. And they are on the run so I guess they don’t have much use for lots of money.

Episode Guide

In Bullets and Bikinis a couple of girls own this nice hotel in Miami and a gangster is trying to force them to sell. They don’t want to sell so they hire the A-Team. This one follows the standard A-Team formula. In fact to be honest almost every episode follows the standard A-Team formula. It doesn’t matter. The four regular cast members go through their paces with their usual style, there’s a generous helping of mayhem and there’s plenty of humour. Plus, since this is a resort hotel, there are plenty of babes in bikinis. It’s lots of fun.

The Bend in the River is a two-parter. Archaeologist Dr Brian Lefcourt is captured by river pirates on the Amazon. He was there looking for cultural artifacts and a lost city although there were rumours of buried treasure. Lefcourt just happens to be engaged to (well, almost engaged to) Tawnia Baker so naturally the A-Team sets off for South America to rescue him.

A good A-Team episode need colourful villains and this one scores highly in that regard. There’s El Cajon (“The Coffin”), the outrageous cut-throat river pirate, and there’s the sinister and utterly ruthless Doyle (Mike Preston). The question is, why is El Cajon preventing anyone from going down the river and what is Doyle up to? He’s not a man likely to be interested in cultural artifacts. It turns out that there’s a lot more hidden in the jungle than a lost city. There’s something much more menacing by far. This is an ambitious totally over-the-top episode that works very neatly indeed.

In Fire a big fire fighting company is trying to take over a contract from small fire-fighting company run by a feisty lady fire-fighter. But the contract is really small so why would such a big company be interested? That’s one of the things the A-Team will have find out. In this one the A-Team gets some good news. Colonel Decker isn’t after them any more. The bad news is that now there’s a Colonel Briggs after them, and he’s just as determined. You can’t dislike an episode which features a fire-engine chase. Good stuff.

In Timber! it’s small loggers under threat, this time from a crooked union which isn’t really a union at all. The Face has a lot of fun impersonating a forestry inspector spouting gobbledegook about horrible insect menaces. Another episode that follows the formula rigidly but gets away with it through sheer exuberance.

Double Heat lands the A-Team is in the middle of a war between rival gangster, with a kidnapped girl’s life at stake. What Hannibal would like to do is to make sure both gangsters lose. It will be tricky, but he likes a challenge. A good episode.

In Trouble on Wheels there’s a racket going on at an auto plant. Hannibal and Face go undercover to find out who’s behind it. The usual mayhem ensues. A routine episode.

In The Island an ex-army doctor named Fallone lives on a tiny island which happens to be a sovereign state, and that’s what attracts the bad guys who want to take over and use the islanders as slave labour in their narcotics business. The A-Team has no intention of allowing this to happen. When the A-Team has to assault a fortress you expect them to take a car or an old truck and convert it into an improvised armoured vehicle. But not this time. This time they have an actual tank. This story also features a memorable villain. A pretty decent episode.

In Showdown! we get the A-Team as the bad guys, battling against the good guys - who are of course the A-Team. Yes, two rival A-Teams. The bad A-Team is trying to intimidate the the owner of a travelling Wild West Show. The real A-Team has plenty to keep them busy since the military police are hot on their trail again and this time surely there can be no escape. Plenty of fun in this episode.

In Sheriffs of Rivertown the A-Team is hired to take over law enforcement in a South American mining town. There have been several mysterious accidents in the mine. The A-Team has fun running around with their badges before they discover that there’s a nefarious conspiracy behind the accidents. Of course they have to build a makeshift vehicle but this time it’s something more interesting than an armoured vehicle. A solid episode.

In The Bells of St. Mary’s the way in which the A-Team gets involved in the case makes no sense at all. The case involves a girl singing group who have major problems with their record company, for reasons that make no sense at all. It leads to kidnapping. The most surprising thing about this one is that it was written by series creator Stephen J. Cannell so he has no-one but himself to blame for the fact that it’s a bit of dud, enlivened only by an interesting twist in the B.A.-Murdock dynamic.

Hot Styles takes the A-Team into the world of high fashion. Face’s latest girlfriend is involved in some way with notorious hoodlum Johnny Turian. The A-Team rescues her but she doesn’t seem to appreciate their efforts one little bit. Face is determined to figure what’s going on. And Murdock turns fashion designer. B.A. doesn’t appear in this episode. This is a very routine episode, lacking any real cleverness or sense of fun. Even the fight scenes are very flat.

Breakout! begins with disaster for the A-Team - B.A. and Murdock get arrested in a hick town after getting caught in the middle of an armed robbery. As soon as B.A.’s prints are checked the sheriff will know he’s got a member of the A-Team in his hands which means Colonel Decker will soon be on his way. Hannibal will have to break his friends out of a chain gang but there are lots of complications and he’s not the only one planning a breakout. And there’s a woman and child under threat from murderous hoodlums and even if it means risking capture the A-Team is not going to walk away a situation like that. Naturally B.A. gets to construct an improvised vehicle but this one is really clever. Plenty of action and Decker is right on their tail all the way. Pretty good fun.

Cup A' Joe has an absolutely stock standard A-Team plot. If you’re a regular viewer you can predict the entire course of the story within the first few minutes. The owner of a chain of restaurants is trying to force the owner of a small diner to sell out which doesn’t seem to make sense unless that diner is worth more than appearances suggest. It’s executed well enough but that rigid adherence to a formula was becoming a problem. Murdock is amusing masquerading as an army bomb disposal specialist but apart from that it offers no surprises and no inspiration. A very routine story.

In The Big Squeeze the A-Team is trying to break a loan-sharking operation. Jack ‘The Ripper’ Lane runs the loan shark operation for big-time mobster Nathan Vincent. Lane (played with gusto by Wings Hauser) is a seriously crazy and unhinged villain. Since none of Lane’s victims will stand up to him the A-Team set themselves up as victims. Hannibal spends most of the episode regaling anyone who will listen with Irish proverbs (when he isn’t dead). Nothing wildly original here but it’s done with more style and energy than most season three episodes and it works.

is a slight change of pace. The members of the A-Team find themselves owning 60% of a fighter named Billy Marquette. But petty gangster Sonny Monroe wants Billy to take a dive, and he’s threatening Billy’s sister. Fortunately Hannibal has a plan. It involves B.A. taking Billy’s place in the ring. Lots of boxing action in this one and some tension as Hannibal’s plan starts to unravel. A good episode.

Skins takes the A-Team to Kenya, hunting down poachers who killed a game warden. Hannibal’s plan to take down the whole poaching operation is pretty clever. It’s the basic A-Team formula but with a few subtle changes (such as B.A. flying, but for the first time ever doing so voluntarily) and with the change of setting it all works rather nicely.

Road Games deals with Gentleman Jim Sullivan who (along with his daughter) runs a home for troubled children. Gentleman Jim has one weakness, gambling, and it’s landed him in big trouble. He’s now in debt to a racketeer named Royce and as a result he could lose his house which means he, his daughter and five troubled kids will be homeless unless the A-Team can help him. This one follows the standard formula pretty closely but in this case it works beautifully. There’s the right mix of humour and action and there are a few inspired moments (such as chasing a mobile casino with a helicopter). A very good episode.

Moving Targets is another attempt to vary the formula a little. The A-Team is hired by a north-west African sheikh to protect his daughter. She’s about to marry a neighbouring prince which will bring peace between the two countries, but a revolutionary group intends to stop the marriage. There are multiple double-crosses, lots of action and the ever-awesome John Saxon as the revolutionary leader. B.A. gets conned into flying again but this time it looks like he really will get his revenge. He hates flying, but he hates crashing even more. Not a bad episode.

Knights of the Road is a by-the-numbers episode. A small towing company is being driven out of business by a larger outfit, for some unknown mysterious reason. So the A-Team finds itself in the tow-truck business. B.A. builds a monster tow-truck. The usual mayhem ensues. An average episode.

Waste ‘Em! sticks absolutely rigidly to the established formula and you can predict everything that is going to happen after the first 30 seconds. A waste disposal company is trying to force a small delivery service to sell their despatch centre. The dart bug is cute and the flamethrower is a nice touch but otherwise it’s strictly routine.

Just when the series seems to be hopelessly stuck in a rut along comes Bounty. It’s not just a very very good episode it’s also a very unusual one that departs from the standard formula. Murdock is captured by hillbilly bounty hunters who want the whole A-Team. Murdock has to be rescued but even if the rescue succeeds the bounty hunters will try again so they’re going to have to be persuaded not to do that. Murdock actually gets rescued by a pretty female veterinarian but the A-Team still has problems - Colonel Decker is hot on their trail as well.

And Murdock falls in love with the pretty vet. Any kind of serious romance just doesn’t happen in this series but this is true love. Two things make this more interesting - the vet is played by Wendy Fulton, who was (and still is) Dwight Schultz’s real-life wife so as you would expect there is genuine chemistry there. And Schultz, for the first time in the series, plays Murdock dead straight. Which raises really intriguing questions. Is Murdock’s madness all just an act? Which actually makes sense - by pretending to be mad he keeps out of the clutches of Colonel Decker and he can’t be used to trap the rest of the A-Team. And, even more unusually, the romance angle is all played very seriously.

Of course there’s the usual action as well, and some very effective tension. This story was a bold experiment, coming at a time when the series needed to do something a bit different, and it works surprisingly well. It may even be the best episode of the season.

Beverly Hills Assault takes the A-Team into the world of art. More specifically, the world of crooked at dealers. Young painter ‘Speed’ Miller gets beaten up by goons and his friends hire the A-Team to find out why. First they have to convince the dealer that Murdock is a great artist. This is another very good episode that breaks away just a little from the standard formula, and also moves away from the A-Team’s usual milieu. You don’t expect to encounter the A-Team on Rodeo Drive.

We’re back to the standard formula with Trouble Brewing. A brewery is trying to take over a small soda-pop business. A routine episode but competently executed.

In Incident at Crystal Lake the A-Team decides to take a vacation but Colonel Decker has other plans for them, as does a gang of psycho armed robbers. Face learns that fishing is a lot safer than chasing girls, B.A. has to watch in horror as his beloved van is about to be blown up, Murdock finds a new friend (a shop dummy) and Hannibal’s love of disguise is put to more imaginative use than normal. This episode is a fine example of the basic formula executed with real flair. A great way to end the season.

Final Thoughts

An uneven season with too many episodes just rehashing the basic formula but with a few inspired episodes thrown in. If you’re not a fan of the series this season won’t convert you but if you are a fan you’ll enjoy it.

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