The pilot of The A-Team opens with a long series of shots of a quiet little Mexican village. It's a surprising opening for an ’80s action series mostly remembered for the bluster and bombast that covered up an empty, though candy-coated, soul. Fortunately, by the end of the two-hour pilot movie, much of the village has been blown up or riddled with gunfire. Or at the very least, been host to a car chase. The A-Team is the show everybody always said it was.
Still, it’s mildly better than its reputation. Then again, it has a reputation as one of the worst shows ever to become hugely popular, so “better” means competent every few episodes. The A-Team occasionally rises to the level of “fun” in the first season, as the missions the team embarks upon are wildly varied: In the third episode, “Pros And Cons,” the team infiltrates a prison where an illegal fight ring is putting one of B.A. Baracus’ little friends’ brothers in danger. As Baracus, Mr. T—whose negligible acting strengths didn’t run toward delivering dialogue—poses as a deaf-mute. The engaging Dwight Schultz (as "Howling Mad" Murdock) gets an opportunity to act crazy, and the plan comes together in a genuinely compelling way.
These early episodes have their problems—literally every disguise Hannibal (George Peppard) puts on is a stereotypical caricature of some type, and often a racist one, and the series’ consequence-free violence is in full force—but there’s a surprising amount of fun to be had with the show trying to figure out its formula.
And then, about midway through season one, that formula is settled, and whatever promise the show had goes down the drain. At this point, the creators came up with the idea that the team will always be helping someone who’s under siege by bad guys, will always take out the bad guys through an intricate scheme, and will occasionally infiltrate those bad guys. Every episode hits the same beats, and when watched in large chunks on DVD, they all begin to blend together. Is the team taking on mob bosses or proto-terrorists in this episode? It ultimately doesn’t really matter.
The production values, while good for the time, are mostly laughable by modern-day standards. Every car chase—and there are a lot of them—involves lots of similar shots of Baracus swerving all over, while pursuers slide out of control behind him. A ridiculous number of times, a helicopter gets involved for no apparent reason, and the stunts are all variations on the same two or three things you could do to a car on a TV budget in the ’80s. (And this was one of the bigger-budgeted shows of its time.)
The acting fares better. Peppard and Schultz, at least, try interesting things with their characters before they settle into their preordained roles. As Faceman, Dirk Benedict mostly coasts winningly here, and Mr. T has a weird charisma, even as his acting skills leave something to be desired. The less said about the endless parade of empty-headed actresses the show’s writers tried to integrate into the team (usually poorly), the better.
But there’s something pure in The A-Team that keeps it vaguely watchable all the same, and shows why producers have been trying to remake it since it went off the air. The bleak story at the show’s heart—about military men betrayed by their government—speaks to the anti-government paranoia of the ’80s, and suggests a darker direction the show could have taken with producers who didn’t kowtow so completely to formula. The A-Team is a cartoon, but it wants to be an epic about men wronged by the very government they signed up to defend. Sadly, the show never made anything of that conflict at its heart, and it ended up being the very definition of empty-calorie viewing.
Key features: An enjoyable interview with Stephen J. Cannell about the creation of the show.