July 29, 1983
by Mary Harron
THE A-TEAM, ITV's new comedy and violence show, is already a hit in America and is likely to become a cult here. The first episode was a 90-minute special which combined (with that lurid enthusiasm only Americans can muster) every blockbuster movie and TV adventure series in living memory into a single package. And it did so brilliantly; the politics that underlie this story of a group of Vietnam veterans turned desperadoes may be dangerous, but it's an exhilarating show to watch.
Friday's episode changed genres every five minutes, but it opened in Clint Eastwood territory, as a group of beastly, sweating Mexican bandits terrorised a hapless village. 'Please, *jefe,* we are just poor farmers', cringed the village leader as the bandit chief cackled maniacally, rolled his eyes and threatened to rape the man's granddaughter. The dialogue was familiar from a thousand spaghetti Westerns; it seemed pathetically crude, until you realised this was conscious parody. Like so many recent B-movies, this is authentic pulp entertainment satirising pulp entertainment: the utmost stylistic sophistication with a plot guaranteed to appeal to any nine-year-old.
After the bandits kidnap a visiting American journalist, the focus suddenly switches to Lou Grant. In a Los Angeles news room cub reporter Amy Andrews (winningly played by Melinda Culea) attacks her editor for refusing to rescue the missing journalist. Unlike Lou Grant, this is a realistic portrayal of a newspaper editor, and he tells her to get lost. She decides to contact the A-Team for help, in a search that takes us through Chinatown, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and Jaws, with a side-long look at Dallas.
I won't bore you with any more references. What matters is that the A-Team, when we meet them, are classic Hollywood good-bad guys, desperadoes and loveable con-men, who have been forced outside the system. (Framed, in fact, for a robbery they didn't commit.). As characters they could have been computer-programmed to appeal to a general audience: one cigar chomping, witty patriarch (George Peppard), one charming young hustler with a tragic past (Tim Dunigan), and one black strong-man with a punk Mohican and disco necklace (the legendary Mr. T.) who combines brute power with a brooding nobility and a self-help ethic. And one lunatic: the pilot, Murdock (Dwight Schultz), who is locked in a mental home, none too happily!
'Don't you think I want to get out of here and see *ET* just like everyone else?'
They are all Vietnam veterans. The gradual assimilation of Vietnam into acceptable popular mythology, which began solemnly with The Deer Hunter, has reached its culmination with The A-Team: No longer a memory to be hurriedly brushed aside, but heroes of a network adventure show. Their enemy is a comic army officer, Col. Lynch -- see Sgt. Bilko, see Beetle Bailey, see M.A.S.H. -- whose pursuit of our heroes is doomed to slapstick failure. This is classic right-wing American populism -- patriotic, macho, anti-authority -- and is unlikely to be understood in Britain, where to be right-wing implies an obsequiousness towards officers and the status quo. But right-wing this series certainly is. The bandits, it turns out, are in league with a group of sinister guerrillas who are trying to destabilise the country. However, thanks to the A-Team's hearts and minds policy, the villagers rise up and put them to rout -- in a 20-minute series of comic-book battle scenes, over-turning cars and airplane stunt-tricks, in which not a single person is hurt.
America sailed to Vietnam on a sea of comic-book fantasies, and this is how she wishes it had turned out. The dreams are being re-written, at the worst possible moment, as she drifts towards a Central American war. The saddest thing is that America encourages her people to go to war by playing on their better instincts: heroism, rescuing the down-trodden, being Errol Flynn. Vietnam hurt so deep that personally I've never believed they could whip up popular fervour for El Salvador. However, The A-Team is significant fantasy. There's a new generation of young men wathcing television now; and as the polls show the vast majority of Americans don't know which side is which in Central America, they won't be well equipped for telling the good guys from the bad.