“In 1972 a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit. These men promptly escaped from a maximum-security stockade to the Los Angeles underground. Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as soldiers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.”
You gotta love a show that tells you exactly what it’s about in the first 30 seconds of every episode. The above was narrated every week before the opening credits, followed by the distinctive staccato beat of the theme and, oh yes, machine gun rounds spelling out the ‘A’ in A-Team. One may even say that machine guns were the main instruments utilized in the show’s musical score. The series created by 80s wunderkind Stephen J. Cannell ran very successfully from 1983 to 1987, becoming an international hit and pop culture icon.
The A-Team consisted of four soldiers who got a bum wrap while on a super secret military operation in Vietnam. They were wrongly accused and arrested, only to escape and go on the lam from military authorities. The leader of the group was Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith, lover of fine cigars, master of disguises and part-time actor. His second in command was Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck, a scrounger and pretty boy who could charm anything out of anyone. Sergeant B.A. “Bad Attitude” Baracus had a rather unique appearance, complete with mohawk, beard and about 117 pounds of gold jewelry hanging around his neck. B.A. drove the team’s van and had a serious fear of flying, causing the other members to drug him in order to get him on a plane. The fourth member was Captain “Howling Mad” Murdock, a helicopter pilot who was the only one of the team not sought by the authorities; he resided permanently in a mental asylum and whether he was actually crazy or just eccentric is up for debate. One thing was certain though; he was very good at raising the blood pressure of B.A.
In the first few seasons, Amy Allen, a reporter, often helped the team and was replaced by Tawnia Baker, another reporter, in the second season; both women were largely ornamental and didn’t last long in the testosterone-fueled environment of the A-Team. Other than assorted bad guys, the team also had to outwit Colonel Lynch—and then his successor, Col. Decker—of the military police, who was always trying to apprehend the heroes.
The show didn’t invest in complicated season arcs, every episode being essentially self-contained. Every story line followed a simple formula: a downtrodden person or group (heretofore knows as the schmuck) would seek the team’s help against a big corporation or crime boss. After passing Hannibal’s rigorous test to determine if the schmuck was for real or a military police stooge, the team would travel—domestically or internationally—and stand up to the bully. Hannibal would say something witty and possibly flick ash on the bad guy’s shoes, which would escalate into a fight that the team won, thanks to B.A.’s penchant for body slamming people into any available surface. The bad guys would regroup and come back at them with some underhanded ploy, forcing the heroes to quickly construct a vehicle or device that would ram or hurl things and ultimately win the day. B.A. usually designed and constructed these machines, being the mechanical genius that he was. Through it all, Face would charm a local (downtrodden) lass, Murdock would have a mental episode (or several), B.A. would ultimately get revenge for being knocked out by the rest of the team and Hannibal would light a cigar and say “I love it when a plan comes together.” Hannibal’s plans always came together.
The series became famous for is cartoonish violence and over-the-top explosions. Invariably, a car/van/truck would flip over and burst into glorious flames, leaving the bad guy occupants curiously unscathed. In fact no one ever suffered so much as a sucking chest wound, which is very odd considering how the bullets were flying in every episode. Over the entire run of The A-Team only one or two characters actually died on screen. This aspect of the show drew a lot of criticism because violence—and specifically, gun violence—never had any serious consequences. Naturally, the fans didn’t care about the critics’ rants. There were millions of fans too, not only in the U.S. but in Europe and England as well.
In the fourth season, ratings declined and the format of the show changed as a result. The military finally caught up with the team and, after pleading guilty at their court martial, Hannibal and co. were sentenced to execution. The intrepid bunch escaped from under the noses of the firing squad and joined the employ of shady General Stockwell who promised the team exoneration in exchange for their mercenary services. The fifth season was the last, but the show went to syndication and countless reruns. A feature film was released in 2010, starring Liam Neeson, but it didn’t quite capture the charm of the original.
The impact of The A-Team on popular culture has been immense. It is one of the most referenced and spoofed TV shows ever, imitated and parodied often. B.A. Baracus, played by Mr. T, is a phenomenon in and of himself with comic books, cartoons and a plethora of assorted merchandise devoted to him. The team’s black van, with a red stripe and spoiler on the roof, is a potent symbol of the 80s, gracing T-shirts and lunch boxes. If you see a van tricked out just like the one on the show, you’ll probably squeal like a dolphin and scramble for your camera — don’t try to deny it.
If you tuned in faithfully to The A-Team during the 80s, we’d love to hear your thoughts in our comments section.