Last summer before going away on holiday, I sent my son and my husband to the DVD store to get us something new to watch while we were away. When they came back, my son had chosen the boxed set of the first series of The A-Team. Mister Litlove and I exchanged glances that said, ‘well, whatever’. Little did we know what a family obsession we were about to unleash. Just under a year later, and we finally watched the last programme of the last series, having seen every single episode that was ever made. And once we’d reached the end, we turned around and started over at the beginning. Hannibal, Face, Murdock and B.A. have become almost members of the family; we quote them in times of trouble and stress, and sometimes just when we feel like it. Watching them the second time around we can deconstruct the ridiculous elements of the plot, and point out all the failures of continuity in the filming, and yet we enjoy them even more for their imperfections.
The thing is, the four characters are all so endearing. Hannibal makes such a strong leader because he appreciates his men so much; he never reproaches them when things go wrong, he never undermines their feelings or points out their mistakes. And in the early series he has a hypnotic recklessness, walking up to the bad guys and taunting them fearlessly. Face is such a beautiful man; he turns a three-piece suit into a poem; but I like him best when he’s whining and grumbling. Dirk Benedict played the contradictions of his character in a delicately understated way, a conman with a streak of loyalty, a soldier who would prefer to run away from a fight. Murdock is just a delight, playing the is-he-isn’t-he mad role with such clever mischievousness. There are times when he has a different voice for each line of dialogue he speaks, and yet he’s always the one with the plan when the others are in trouble. And as for B.A., well, you just want to see him hit people with his ludicrous knuckleduster-laden fists. But then I like the tender side of his character, particularly the way he transforms into a kitten when there are children around. Clearly at some point between the second and third series, someone decided that having the big black man only like children was asking for misinterpretation, and the children disappeared, which was a shame. He is far less interesting as pure muscle.
The plots were rehashed Robin Hood, except that it was a redistribution of power rather than wealth that was at stake. Wherever there were bullies in small town America, the A-Team were on hand to grind their faces in the dirt – or at least, flip them in their cars, which is the A-Team route to redemption. ‘They’ll change their ways now they’ve been rolled in the jeep!’ we would chorus as a family, watching the special effects teams of the eighties having fun with an endless supply of cars and army vehicles. It was a formula but an effective one; nothing stings quite like injustice, unless it’s injustice mixed with brute violence. Those early series were brilliant for making the audience feel genuine rage against the bad guys, and it was sweet vengeance to see B. A. pound them into the ground and throw them over whatever bar counter was available, or to watch the team once again being locked into someone’s disused workshop in which they could fashion outlandish weaponry. Apparently Mr. T who played B.A. was a committed Christian and refused to take part in a program in which people actually got hurt. So our four heroes spend their time scattering bullets wildly and unproductively, never hitting a single character (even those without names) despite point blank range at times. The camera lingers on the wreck of every rolled car to watch its occupants implausibly clamber out, weak-kneed, and in one memorable episode, even a helicopter can crash and explode against a cliff face then disgorge its crew, just a tad smoky, shortly afterwards.
You can see why The A-Team’s life as a series was relatively short. Those early episodes were full of vim and energy, with the team showing their full characters and the scriptwriters larding the action with wisecracks. Then the formula took over, and, as is inevitable with formulas, something went a bit stale. Hannibal got lazy, and B. A. became completely disconnected, barely contributing a line of dialogue to the proceedings. In the end Murdock was carrying the whole show, with Face as back-up. For some inexplicable reason, the producers decided that to freshen up the format, they needed a fifth member and Frankie Santana joined the team, looking so much like the Cat from Red Dwarf that I had to check on IMdB that it wasn’t the same actor. There simply wasn’t enough action to go round five characters, and it showed; the precious ‘team’ was fragmented and the energy went out of it.
The A-Team is not a program you can watch with a critical attitude; you’d never stop picking holes in it. The baddies have no sense of logical causality, the stunts are often impossible and the rules about who wields power when pulling guns are frankly arcane. The fact that Murdock is standing higher than a ring of four bad guys and they are slightly startled when he calls out to them with a gun in his hands means they are all obliged to submissively drop their weapons? No, just don’t think about it for too long. There are inadvertently hilarious moments, like B.A. running with one hand clamping down his great wreaths of gold jewellery – the only thing on the set capable of knocking him out. Nor is it wise to consider what the bad guys think they are doing – one of our favourite episodes concerned Nazis building a nuclear power station in the middle of the jungle. I mean, Nazis! A nuclear power station! It’s brilliant in its ridiculousness. The back-story is, in fact, pretty unimportant, what matters is watching the A-Team bicker like a family on an eventful camping holiday, and then purposefully saving the day with a luminous reliability. And that we haven’t tired of yet.