There’s nothing like revisiting a TV show from your youth to discover exactly how much you’ve grown up in the intervening years. (Or how grown up you already were, if you’re one of the fortunate ones.) I have no idea who that child was who took such pleasure in the Dukes of Hazzard, whose heart used to leap like a deer at the sound of “Dixie” played on a car horn; the good-ol’-boy-hating adult of today wants nothing to do with him. And I strongly suspect the kid who willingly sat through those episodes of Silver Spoons was, in fact, an alien doppleganger sent to infiltrate Earth society by posing as a witless twelve year-old whose role models were dorks. Maybe he was just a kid too lazy to get off his ass and change the channel.
Whoever those strange alternate selves turn out to be, I do feel a strong kinship to the kid who watched The A-Team. I was thrown back into his presence on the occasion of TV Land’s A-Team Fandemonium Marathon: 48 hours of dummy bullets, exploding cars, and men soaring balletically through the air. Not to mention lousy acting, weak puns, preposterous celebrity cameos, and enough specimens of Geniune Eighties Hair to start a museum. It’s probably not a good idea to watch anything constantly for two straight days, and sitting in front of The A-Team for more than a few hours inflames the human demand for plausibility into a rage-fueled geyser. “How can Hannibal Smith possibly have an acting career when he’s a wanted fugitive?” you might find yourself demanding of your roommate, or girlfriend, or cat, or the wall. “Who actually thinks Face is that good-looking? How could any doctor with brains think that Murdock is really crazy? How many stupid machines are they going to build out of discarded freezer parts or old wheelbarrows? And why the fuck doesn’t anyone ever get killed?”
But why stop at rampant implausibility when you can add repitition? All tv shows rely on formula to a certain extent, but The A-Team is in a league—a sport—all its own. It established a formula in its first few episodes and stuck to it so rigidly one could easily imagine a software program capable of generating A-Team stories. (Oh look—someone already has.) And although every A-Team fan knows the routine, and since you probably wouldn’t be reading this if reams of gunplay and cheesy jokes aren’t your cup of tea, we nevertheless must revisit, briefly, the well-oiled engine that was an A-Team story.
We begin with the Innocents in Trouble: small-time grocers or farmers or cabdrivers just trying to make an Honest Living, being steadily screwed to the wall by the Evil Bastard and his henchmen, who hold the town in an iron grip of fear. The Innocents then contact the A-Team, represented by one of Col. John “Hannibal” Smith’s array of interchangeable disguises; the team springs Cpt. H.M. “Howlin’ Mad” Murdock out of the local psych ward, dopes Sgt. Bosco “B.A.” Baracus into la-la land (the big lug is scared to fly—ain’t that precious?), and flies to their destination. Hannibal thereupon concocts a plan that invariably requires Lt. Templeton “Faceman” Peck to bully a halfwitted local merchant out of a truckload of dynamite or a crate of fissionable plutonium. At some point, the team will be called upon to assemble some Rube Goldbergian device (like, say, a deisel-powered lettuce cannon—see below), or refurbish a derelict 30-foot yacht, always in a matter of minutes and always to the crisp punctuation of the A-Team’s martial theme music. There may be a setback or two, necessitating an elaborate and thoroughly improbable escape from the Evil Bastard’s clutches, but nobody really gets hurt, and by the end Hannibal is there lighting a cigar, grinning and cackling, “I love it when a plan comes together!”
Do I protest too much? Yes, but only to point out how much The A-Team overcomes in weaving its peculiarly addictive spell. Stick with the show a little longer (say around eight hours or more—I don’t recommend this to anyone with a life) and you develop affection for the show’s silliness and Xerox-like predictability; they’re precisely what make it so fun. An episode of The A-Team is like a Tex Avery cartoon in which the characters fire machine guns and lob grenades instead of pound each other with mallets, and the more idiotic things get, the more pleased the show seems to be with itself. When the team overcomes a group of shotgun-wielding thugs with the aforementioned homemade lettuce cannon, the actors don’t bother attempting a seriousness the scene obviously doesn’t deserve; instead they grin as though they were having the time of their lives. Who wouldn’t?
At the heart of The A-Team, and the idea that still makes it a pleasure to watch, is what the characters call being on the jazz. When you’re on the jazz, nothing can hurt you and you know it—you’re just too damn smart, good-looking, and cool to die, especially when the people out to get you are such idiots. It’s the mindset that leads people to become skydiving instructors or to climb active volcanoes, and while everyone in the A-Team has it, its leader, “Hannibal” Smith, is addicted to it. Intelligent, cunning, and unshakeably convinced of his own invulnerability, Hannibal is one of those talented folks both blessed and cursed to work amongst people who are, almost to a man, complete morons. The worst thing about his job is that it isn’t difficult enough. He’s not happy merely to defeat his opponents; he has to make it look easy, like the kid with the football who stops just a foot from the endzone, seemingly unaware of everyone else hurtling towards him at breakneck speed even as he takes that last lazy step to a touchdown. Hannibal’s cool is damn near unshakeable, and in perfect keeping with the program’s bloodless approach to mayhem; far from being unrealistic, The A-Team is pretty close to how someone like Hannibal would perceive the world. In short, he’s one seriously looney motherfucker, a charming, cocky rogue with a psychotic thirst for violence and danger, like a cross between Dirty Harry and Bugs Bunny. And people thought Murdock was the crazy one.
Like all shows so dependent on formula—Batman comes to mind—The A-Team quickly started to get old, and soon the producers were taking drastic measures to shake things up.
The plots became ridiculous even by The A-Team’s liberal standards, celebrity guests started popping up as themselves (among them Hulk Hogan, Rick James, Joe Namath, William “The Refrigerator” Perry, and Boy George—Boy fucking George) and, in the last season, the program’s premise was completely rewritten: the team was captured by the government and forced to work off its debt to society, not by washing dishes, but by completing missions for smug CIA spook Hunt Stockwell (Robert Vaughan). The team was also saddled with a hideous new character in the person of gibbering wiseass Frankie Santana, a special effects whiz who seemed to have wandered in from a failed sitcom. But the worst failure of The A-Team’s ignoble final season is that, having suffered the humiliation of capture and defeat, Hannibal was never the same. His invincibility was shattered; forced to come and go as Stockwell pleased, he became just another guy stuck working for a prick boss. The fun was gone, and nobody mentioned being on the jazz anymore.
Still, it’s not as though The A-Team didn’t earn the considerable success it enjoyed in its first run. Few shows ever reach such meteoric popularity so quickly, and it’s a testament to the show’s creative team that they got so much right on the first try. From the inspired lunacy of Dwight Schultz as Murdock to the self-effacing Dirk Benedict as the kvetchy Face; from the perfectly overblown Mr. T as, well, himself really, to old Hollywood vet George Peppard, who knew when to just let go and enjoy himself, The A-Team presented an ideal balance of acting and writing from the very start. So specific a mix guaranteed eventual viewer burnout, and tinkering with it could only make it worse. The show’s very success—both popular and artistic—was the biggest factor in its decline.
Who would’ve suspected that The A-Team’s greatest failing was that it was too good?