If you grew up in the eighties, you knew who they were. Love them or hate them, they were impossible to ignore. The old geezer with his cigar. The crazy guy with the invisible dog. The Sci-Fi reject with the handsome face. The B.A. who beat up Rocky III. They were everywhere for about three years right in the middle of the Reagan Devolution. They were of course, the A-Team, a fictional group of Army commandoes on the run from Leavenworth. They essentially circumvented the legal systems to help out those in trouble, who could no longer rely on the system to protect them. But of all the amazing rescues the A-Team pulled off, none was better than the one it did rescuing NBC from the doldrums of last place in the final era of the old Network Wars.
NBC in the late seventies was a mess. Fred Silverman, who’d been a wizard at both ABC and especially CBS, was brought to the America’s first broadcasting network in 1978, where everyone expected him to do for the Peacock what he’d done at ABC and CBS. His time there was simply disastrous. One word: Supertrain. Nothing worked. Grant Tinker replaced him after just three years, and the network was dying for a prime-time hit. Then something funny happened.
Mr. T. a nobody, was picked out of a casting call to be Rocky’s fierce opponent Clubber Lang for the third installment of the Rocky film series. Mr. T was such a personality that TV came calling. With Brandon Tartikoff, a Silverman protege, head of the entertainment division, NBC asked veteran producer Steven J. Cannell (The Rockford Files) to create an action series starring Mr. T. The result: an amazingly popular series that began the great turnaround at NBC. Before Hill Street Blues, before Cosby, L.A. Law, and Must See TV, there was nothing on NBC but The A-Team.
Why did the show click? I had no idea at the time; I thought it was stupid and pointless. It was only when I began to watch reruns in college that I began to see the secret of its success. The action and Mr. T drew the kids in. They loved him, and the violence was strictly cartoon in order. Lots of dangerous ammo being fired, but no one gets killed or even badly wounded (this to comply with FCC guidelines – the show was on 8-9 and since they new kids were watching, they did not want to show a high murder ratio). And when Vince McMahon saw the popularity, he got a deal with NBC to give appearances to WWF superstar Hulk Hogan.
Older, dad types could enjoy watching George Peppard, who was clearly enjoying himself as the leader of the team. He was smart, cracked clever jokes, and kept things moving very smoothly. Peppard also got to play different parts, wearing disguises as a means of making contact with the client – a precaution in case it was the military looking to catch him.
Dirk Benedict was the hunk of the team, and Sis could stare at him dreamily. He was also smart enough to be more than just a pretty face, so kid brother could tolerate him.
Dwight Schultz’s Murdock was just nuts, and guys with a sense of humor had a ball with him, and loved the in-jokes of his wild caricatures.
In short, the series had something for everyone! And NBC rode its wave until The Cosby Show would take it all the way to the top again.
Today one can watch the show as a silly artifact from a strange era. The entire five-year series is on DVD and the first season is available on I-tunes. Have fun!
(Thanks again to the regular pop culture bloggers for letting me guest-post.)