A Love Letter to The A-Team
The series holds up after all these years, its sustained appeal representing a certain cultural victory.`
We tend to be ashamed of our childhood heroes. I, in particular, idolized a fair number of idiots. However, my admiration for The A-Team remains intact over the years. My childhood would have been much duller without Murdock, Face, B. A., and Hannibal Smith — may he rest in peace. Now, I’ve rewatched the series and understood why it has stood the test of time much better than the poems I wrote to my first girlfriend. Those four madmen were a cornucopia of values: loyalty, justice, kindness, patriotism, freedom, and a fine sense of humor. They also exhibited a very justifiable skepticism about the goodness of the government. It was everything I miss in today’s television and, almost always, in society too. And in politics. Oddly enough, there is much we can still learn from The A-Team. And I don’t mean how to make bazookas out of pipes and lettuce.
The whole series was dreamt up by Stephen J. Cannell and Frank Lupo (Lupo passed away in Florida last February from cardiac arrest). Both poured not only their talent into the show, but also their moral code, something Cannell always attributed to his parents’ strong Christian convictions. The A-Team is more than the sentimental biography of several generations. It is also our moral biography. From it, I learned to keep calm, smile, and light a cigar every time the enemy locks me in a shed and threatens to kill me. Life is better that way. You know: Be happy. It disconcerts the enemy.
From these four men, we learned never to cooperate with evil. On one occasion in my own life, I learned in a bar that someone was hatching a dirty scheme to force my dismissal from a company, quite unfairly. Far from succumbing to discouragement, I lit a cigarette, put on my best smile, ordered a round for my confidants, and we toasted to the future — moments after I called my boss and quit. I felt like Hannibal when he smiles at the camera as everything explodes behind him.
My attempts to emulate Face were less fortunate. More than once, I tried to get out of my tedious gym classes under the most diverse pretexts. While enjoying a rare lucky streak one day, I decided it would be a good idea to pretend that I had suffered a terrible injury. My strategy failed because I invented a muscle that doesn’t exist and my teacher — oh dear me — was also a doctor. These things happened to Face too, I thought, to console my humiliation.
As for the other characters, Murdock would suddenly come to his senses when his friends were in danger, and B. A. could not bear the suffering of the weak. His rudeness was a front. Even in spite of the constant bickering between the two, in the episode where Murdock is badly wounded and dying, B. A. whispers in his ear, “Come on, hang in there. I like your crazy stuff.”
On another occasion, a religious group that did not approve of their use of violence hired them. Mobsters wanted to drive the religious group out of their camp to take over their land. Hannibal, respectful of the group’s beliefs, promised to act without shooting or fighting, but the A-Team fails and has to hand out a few slaps. Not too many, but the client, appalled, fires them. When they are on their way home after abandoning the mission, the colonel decided to backtrack: They would return, no longer as mercenaries, but just to pass the time, to beat up the bad guys. Face thought it was madness and a waste of time, but, once in combat, he was the first one to defend the cause for which they were no longer going to be paid.
They were, without a doubt though, mercenaries. Life unwittingly placed them on the fringes of the law. But there are many occasions in which they accepted missions for clients who didn’t have the means to pay them, because once again, in The A-Team, there is something intrinsically linked to American values: helping those who suffer injustice at the hands of thugs.
They themselves were the victims of injustice, accused of a crime they had not committed. This ease of conscience permeated the whole storyline, and that soon awakened the audience’s complicity. While the antagonists, Colonels Decker and Lynch, persecuted the team more to bolster their own egos than to pursue the law, and are often moved by hatred, there was no trace of resentment against them among the four protagonists.
Hannibal, for his part, simply seemed to get a kick out of thwarting Decker’s attempts to catch him. And here we have another life lesson: to distinguish between enemies. There are bad guys, and then there are those who are simply mistaken. For instance, the military police, whom the A-Team always defeated but who showed certain signs of complicity, usually end up cooperating by helping to catch mobsters and other bad guys. It is impossible not to be reminded of G. K. Chesterton’s words: “The true soldier fights not because he hates what is in front of him, but because he loves what is behind him”.
Worshipping violence is easy, and on television, you can make things look more horrible than in reality. The action movies of the last 40 years prove it. The A-Team though, simply didn’t go for it. The bad guys never died. Even after they’d flipped over 200 times, they’d come out of the flaming car, dazed but alive. It would have been more plausible for the bad guys to die, but it would have been less fun.
Our heroes, however, were not angels. They were deeply human. Murdock was a basket case and could be a real pain in the ass; Face could spoil any plan if a pretty girl got in the way, and would always do his best to keep his suit tidy; B. A. suffered from a pathological bad temper, although that was perhaps his only vice; and as for Hannibal, despite his old colonel’s diligence, his arrogance would often make life complicated. The characters were so well woven that all these defects only succeeded in awakening sympathy and laughter in the spectator.
Unfortunately, the last season was a disaster. The writers decided to bet everything on action with no comedy, and they subjected the A-Team to a police protectorate. Naturally, the audience was crushed. Since then, despite being a cult series for millions of viewers, everything we’ve heard about our heroes has been confusing. We’ve heard that the actors got along terribly and that the real characters were not as wonderful as the fictional ones. That’s not exactly the case either. Progressive do-gooderism has also tried to undermine the show’s legacy. All things considered, Face didn’t like boys, B. A. despised vegans, Hannibal’s plans weren’t exactly carbon-neutral, and Murdock’s greatest folly was his love of America. Netflix wouldn’t give a dime for something like that.
Context is important. George Peppard (who played Hannibal) was the only one who was already a big star when the series was launched. It stands to reason that he might have acted with a certain arrogance, amending scripts on a whim. Perhaps that tension between management and Peppard himself helped make the series better. His co-stars say that he would often arrive on set and cross out half a script from that day’s shoot, saying, “This is all I’m going to say, man.” And the rest of them had to adapt. I don’t think that’s necessarily a flaw.
What is certain is that George Peppard was not an easy guy to work with. Dwight Schultz (who played Murdock) joked about it. When they met in the dressing room on the first day, Peppard held out his hand and said, “Hi, I’m George Peppard and I’m not a very nice guy.” That cynicism of the character, which made him so cool, was not a pose. Neither was Face’s gentlemanly style — just look at him today! — B. A.’s competitive spirit, or Murdock’s madness and brilliant sense of humor. As for Peppard’s fights with B. A., there was a logical competition of egos. Hannibal was the show’s star and B. A. had become popular with children.
Peppard’s own view of The A-Team on British television years later confirms all the keys to the success of the series:
I think the A-Team are the worst shots in the world. But it is good, because it tells everybody we’re out for fun, there’s going to be no blood, there’s going to be no horror, you know what we intend, you know we don’t like the bad guys, and we do defeat them. It also gave us some leeway into farce, because basically, the best thing about The A-Team to me is when you have something utterly ridiculous that’s treated with absolute seriousness, and when we did that well, I thought we were very funny.
A few weeks ago, I conducted an experiment: I put the series on for a group of children between six and ten years old. I thought they would get bored within the first minute. Ten episodes later, they’re still begging me to sit down and watch the next episode, they’re playing the A-Team at the playground, and they’ve forgotten all about their deplorable monster dolls or their school’s gender-role-swapping games. Now they know what it’s like to fight for the moral code they inherited from their elders, and it’s more fun for them than the woke stuff, or Disney’s phony sentimentality.
I never thought that the great American cultural battle would consist, after all’s said and done, of sitting and watching television for a while.