Friday, April 30, 2010

CULT TV FLASHBACK #107: The A-Team: "Children of Jamestown" (1983)

During the original NBC run of The A-Team (1983 - 1986), my father had a word he used to describe the Stephen J. Cannell, Frank Lupo series:


Now, diverting can mean "entertaining" or "amusing," but it can also mean to "turn aside" or "distract from a serious occupation."

In the case of The A-Team, my Dad probably meant all of the above.

The A-Team is a vintage action series of unmatched cartoon violence, colorful but superficial characters, outrageous stunts...and not much narrative or thematic depth to speak of. But taken on those very limited terms, The A-Team truly and fully "diverts."

What does this mean, exactly? Well, even today, you can't take your eyes off the bloody thing.

Oh, there are significant causes to complain, I suppose, if that's your stock and trade. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

How about realism? Well, let's just say that any TV series featuring John Saxon as a drugged-out religious cult leader probably isn't aiming strictly for realism.

But again, you either take a series like this on its own terms, or you don't take it at all. Your rational, logical mind may complain or rebel about some very important aspects of storyline, plot resolution and yeah, physics, but after watching an A-Team episode you may nonetheless find yourself smiling almost uncontrollably. There's a joie-de-vivre about the players on this classic TV program, and it acts like a giant black hole...sucking you in, even if you put up resistance.

The A-Team, which aired for 98 hour-long episodes, follows a group of Vietnam veterans hunted by the U.S. military. Renegades and modern-day cowboys, these team members now serve as sort of on-the-run mercenaries.

So, as the series' opening narration reminds viewers -- at least before staccato machine-gun fire kicks in -- "if you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire... The A-Team.

Team members include leader John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), whose catchphrase is "I love it when a plan comes together," charming con man Lt. Templeton "Face" Peck (Dirk Benedict), crazy helicopter pilot "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz) and perpetually-cranky mechanic/driver B.A. (Bad Attitude) Baracus, played by Mr. T. Melina Culea portrays reporter Amy Allen in the early seasons of the series.

The first season A-Team episode "Children of Jamestown" is a perfect representation of the series' aesthetic. It begins in mid-mission (and in relatively tense fashion, I was surprised to see...) with the team attempting the rescue of ra ich girl from the clutches of Martin James (Saxon), a sun-glass wearing, religious cult leader. The freed girl is delivered safely to her wealthy father, but Face, B.A., Hannibal and Amy are captured and taken to the Jamestown compound for "judgment."

There, the A-Team is granted an audience before James, who pretentiously recites a poem to them. Hannibal recites a poem in kind: "Hickory, Dickory, Dock..." he begins.

Outraged, James orders his machine-gun armed acolytes -- hulking muscle men in brown monks robes -- to free the prisoners and then hunt them down. In a convoy of surplus Army jeeps that the compound conveniently maintains

So, it's kind of like The Most Dangerous Game at Jonestown...

Now, right here, an engaged (and sober) viewer will start asking some mighty pertinent questions. Why do these macho, grim acolytes feel it necessary to wear monk robes? More trenchantly, what do they get by serving the egotistical and difficult (and clearly bonkers) James? Why did they join the order? Furthermore, why all the jeeps and machine guns at a religious commune? What is the religious foundation for this order that it can incorporate both monks robes and heavy artillery?

But okay, the A-Team requires an army to fight every week, and in this episode, we get an army plus a wacky cult leader. It might not make strict sense, but there you have it.

So anyway, the A-Team escapes to a nearby farm, where a farmer and his gorgeous daughter live in fear of the cult and the cult leader. The family helps the team out, and Face has a little romance with the farmer's daughter, unaware, apparently, that the "farmer's daughter" scenario is the set-up of too many dirty jokes to count.

But hey! This is no ordinary farmer, let me tell you. He also happens to be an artist who sculpts metal in his spare time. His back yard thus resembles an auto junk yard. So in short order, Hannibal, B.A., Amy and Face construct a flame-thrower turret on top of a commandeered jeep. Then, using a hot water heater and acetylene tanks, they build a missile launcher.

Then they take the battle right to James, who is leading his jeep convoy against the uncooperative farmer.

I love it when a plan comes together. Don't you?

I've watched several seasons of Mission: Impossible (1966-1973) recently, and was very, very impressed. Every single week, that series played matters absolutely straight, with a real, sincere attempt to seem realistic...even with strange gadgets, face-masks, and complicated plots in the mix. In other words, Mission: Impossible crafted a larger sense of "truth" around its stories, settings and characters. And the suspense was almost universally intense.

The A-Team, by contrast, plays nothing straight. It's a knowing put-up job from start-to-finish. For instance, this episode doesn't look seriously at cults, or at cult leaders. It doesn't examine the reasons why a farmer in the middle of nowhere would also have a machine shop. Nor does the narrative see the main characters -- except for Amy -- break a sweat. Instead, the narrative is but a hook for the action scenes and a lot of admittedly funny jokes.

What holds "this plan" together, in simple terms is the grace of the performers, and the unfettered sense of violent fun. Again, I can't argue that the A-Team is socially valuable stuff, only that -- as my Dad stated so memorably on a Tuesday night long, long ago -- it "diverts."

The A-Team hangs a lot on the chemistry between the actors. So it's a good thing they're such an agreeable bunch. Watching Face describe "the jazz," or having Hannibal get mad over the fact that James has taken his prized boots may not sound like scintillating television, but somehow -- with these guys, with these jokers, -- that's exactly what it is.

"Children of Jamestown" attempts, at one point, to wax serious, with Baracus telling Amy that the only to get through a situation like this is to "accept death." Why? Because it "frees you."

And the playful attitude of the A-Team TV series, I suppose, "frees you" too. After an especially hard day's work, the the knowing silliness of this show is oddly infectious.

I featured the A-Team as my cult-tv flashback today because, very shortly, a feature film revival (starring Liam Neeson as Hannibal) will be playing in theaters. I'm sure the temptation will be to update the series by making the film "dark" and "bloody." But in keeping with the tenor, spirit and odd fun of this weird old TV show, I hope the movie evidences absolutely no redeeming social value whatsoever.

It should remember instead just to include..."the jazz." If it doesn't, well -- to coin a phrase -- I pity the fool....


  1. This was a splendid diversion, John. You are so right that one couldn't "take your eyes off the bloody thing." Pure entertainment... no sly wit or social commentary, but just plain fun. So far, of what I hear Stephen J. Cannell likes what he sees with the upcoming film adaptation of the series. I hope it's as fun as the TV version. Thanks, JKM.

  2. Thanks, Le0pard13! And I just want to thank you again for posting that great picture of your House Between cd and key chain (and Astrid's medical bag). I really appreciate your support!

    Also -- I hope you don't mind -- I submitted your great piece today on claustrophobia to horror blips, the genre aggregator. I really enjoyed that post!

    All my best,

  3. My pleasure. And very kind of you to submit to horror blips. Thank you.

  4. Nobody on the show ever dies or is badly wounded...even in the most horrific car crash or gun-fight.

    That's a very common misconception; while it's true that the body and injury count was low, it wasn't nonexistent - occasionally people did go to meet their maker, especially in the final season when Hannibal & Co found themselves working for none other than the Man from U.N.C.L.E., Robert Vaughn [as the general who managed to catch them] - but there was the odd fatality earlier on as well, like the prisoner at the beginning of "Pros & Cons" and the luckless man blown up in "Skins." Plus both Murdock and Faceman took one for the team in the course of the series (see "Curtain Call" and "Without Reservations" respectively - the latter was also the final first-run episode) and in the episode "The Battle Of Bel Air" the whole group, with the ironic exception of B.A. (who, as fans of the series know, was scared of flying) was injured when their helicopter crashed in the climax!

    And women? They are pretty much utilized as set decoration.

    No argument there; in fact, George Peppard was never happy with having Melinda Culea around because he didn't feel they needed a female character to tag along - and if you think about it, he has a point (unlike Cinnamon or her successors on Mission: Impossible, Amy and Tawnia aren't that crucial to the mix), which explains the lack of such people in later seasons. Better no women than token women.

    That might have something to do with why the Lynch/Decker equivalent in the upcoming film is a woman, which there's nothing wrong with (there's also nothing wrong with her being played by Jessica Biel - not only does she have action experience with Blade: Trinity, Home on the Range and Stealth, but she takes male viewers into [further] consideration by being very sexy), but why does she have to have been shown to have been involved with Faceman previously?

  5. Grayson7:58 PM

    Cannell involved, as well as Ridley and Tony Scott? Maybe it won't be half bad. But I'm not holding my breath.

    Burn Notice in some ways is a show that takes the premise of The A-Team and makes it serious. For instance, the Michael Westen character on that show used to work for the government, but no longer does. While trying to find out what happened he takes jobs that very well could have been on The A-Team.

  6. John, sorry to nitpick, but you have your dates wrong. "The A-Team" premiered after the 1983 SuperBowl, and "Children of Jamestown" the series' second episode, aired on January 30, 1983, not 1982.

  7. Hey Howard!

    Thanks for the correction. Much appreciated!