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Demystifying The A-Team Formula: Essay, Research Paper

Demystifying The A-Team Formula:

an Examination of Character Personalities

and Old Genres

“In 1972, a crack commando unit was sent to prison by a military court for a crime they didn’t commit.

These men promptly escaped from a maximum security stockade to the Los Angeles underground.

Today, still wanted by the government, they survive as sol diers of fortune. If you have a problem, if no

one else can help, and if you can find them, maybe you can hire the A-Team.”

Most everyone who has been watching television since the 1980’s can recognize this introduction as the

beginning of every A-Team episode. A good handful of these people probably can even sing the theme

song, which sounds as if it could be piped f rom the halls of West Point. The popularity of the show

when it first aired “almost single-handedly brought NBC out of its third place slump in the ratings and

was one of the network’s biggest successes ever.”1

Yet, what secret formula did Stephen J. Cannell (Executive Producer and the man who started the show

going) tap into to get the audience to bite? Why was everyone so turned on to, and tuned in to The

A-Team in its first few seasons? Were the Am erican audience that thrilled hearing B.A. Baracus (Mr. T)

say “Shut up fool!”; were they that interested in seeing if Hannibal’s (George Peppard) plan always

comes together, or was it truly the violence that sold the show?

Compared to NBC’s new experimental shows like Hill Street Blues, and St. Elsewhere, whose innovative

use of realism sparked the Third Golden Age of Television and quality TV as we know it; The A-Team

(TAT) is just another parody of the action/adventure genre. Or is it? The truth is The A-Team ’s

popularity was so brilliant because it provided something for everyone. TAT created a new genre by

mixing old ones. I intend to demystify the formula that was exclusive t o TAT created by exploring the

character personalities and old genres that the show employed.

At the time of the premiere of The A-Team , television was going through a major transformation.

Networks were battling for ratings in a constantly decreasing market. Innovative programs such as CBS’s

Cagney & Lacey were targeting the wo rk-force woman audience by creating a woman cop show. This

show broke the stereotypical barriers of women on the force set by Aaron Spelling’s Charlies Angels.

In a time where the invention of niche marketing for network television was becoming common practice

and mass audience appeal programs were becoming a rarity, The A-Team was born. However, as

stereotypes go, The A-Team is immersed in them. The show’s four main characters provide a personal

profile of almost every class of man in America. To understand each character on the The A-Team, one

must understand the two levels of each character’s profile. The first level is the basic cha racter itself,

how that character fits into the story. The second level is deeper than the first. This level tells us what the

character stands for, what is the character’s deeper identity.

Colonel John “Hannibal” Smith (George Peppard) was the ostensible leader of The A-Team. On the first

level Hannibal is the tactician of the group. He formulates the makeshift plans that could send the team

into making an armored truck into a tan k (”Incident At Crystal Lake”). Hannibal is also known for his

disguises. “A favorite disguise of Hannibal’s is Mr. Lee, proprietor of the Chinese Laundry Shop, an alter

ego that reflects the indefinable nature of the team even on a racial level.”2

On the second level Hannibal is the stereotypical Caucasian leader: elderly, white haired, and cunning. In

a sense he represents corporate America, puffing on cigars and formulating strategies on how to get rich.

Only in Smith’s case he puffs on cigar s and formulates strategies on how to get the bad guy. This is

Hollywood labeling at its best.

Lieutenant Templeton “Faceman” Peck (Dirk Benedict) is a man of a thousand faces. “He is the team’s

resident con- and ladies-man who usually ends up gathering information for the team due to his innate


Face’s second level of character identity shows that he is the stereotypical rich fraternity guy. The

episode, “The Only Church in Town”, even linked him to the Sigma Chi fraternity. His character was the

precursor to the Thirty Something netwo rk pretty boy yuppie. He drove a nice corvette, he was most

comfortable around the Beverly Hills area, and he whined a lot. It also seems as if Aaron Spelling could

have stolen the “Face” character profile for “Steve” on Beverly Hills 90210.

Captain H.M. Murdock (Dwight Schultz) is the crazy pilot for The A-Team. He has a bi-polar disorder

which makes him see and hear things that aren’t really there, like his invisible dog ‘Billy’. After Vietnam,

Murdock was admitted into the Vetera n’s Affair Hospital in Westwood, California. Whenever The

A-Team needed a pilot they would break him out.

Murdock represents the common man. He is the everyday worker, destined to provide service whenever

beckoned by Hannibal, just as the everyday ditch digger is called to provide service for the corporate

elite. Murdock was nicknamed “Howling Mad”, and w hy shouldn’t he be? Stereotypically, don’t the

socially elite, the corporate stockholders try to remove themselves from the common people? Of course,

in their eyes the commoners are unrefined, dirty, and unpleasant. In the elitist eyes, the only time

plebeians are needed is to perform manual labor. Therefore, the only time Murdock is needed is to fly

TAT somewhere.

B.A. Baracus (Mr. T) is the team’s mechanic and strongman. There is always a point in the show where

TAT has to build a contraption or device out of spare parts just lying around. This is where B.A.’s

expertise would come in. He could make a t ank out of any old car or truck. B.A. is also know for his

“bad attitude”. He is suppose to have one of the worst conduct records in the Army because of his

tendencies for punching officers. TAT uses his disposition to their advantage whenever they get into a

scuffle with the bad guys.

On a higher level, Hollywood is using B.A.’s character to represent the stereotypes of minorities. Does

B.A. just have a bad attitude, or does it come from something deeper? B.A. is the stereotypical angry and

feared black man. Due to all the new poli tically correct and sensitive changes that network television has

undergone, Mr. T’s character can only survive in syndication in today’s television.

On the show B.A. and Murdock do not always get along. Why didn’t Hollywood decide to make Face

and Murdock not get along? The obvious conclusion that can be drawn is that Hollywood is saying

African Americans and whites don’t always mix too well. Thes e subtle character levels helps add to the

show. The A-Team is not only a story about escaped soldiers of fortune, but it is a story on contemporary

American stereotypes.

Having examined the stereotypes that proliferated TAT, and explored their roots in American society, I

can now move into the cross genres that The A-Team employed to make the show so successful.

The first and foremost genre that is most notably used by The A-Team is the parody of the

action/adventure genre. “In particular, The A-Team plays as a dead-on send-up of

MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE.”4 Both groups execute their plans with a certain arrogance of perfection, and at

the end of both shows each team can ride off in their respective vehicles victoriously. However, there are

some notable differences. While the MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE team’s elaborate plans are precise and we ll

thought out, “The A-Team’s schemes more often than not carry a sense of backyard improvisation.”5

Every episode had at least one gunfight or one fist fight. MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE had the latest secret

weaponry, whereas The A-Team primarily used the “Ruger AC556 which is a fully automatic rifle.”6, and

whatever other material they could scrounge up. During a typical gunfight on the show there would be

fully automatic rifles firing from all directions, and sometimes even explosions and rocket launchers that

were built out of bamboo shoots were used (”The Doctor Is Out”). However, “as fa r as actual,

on-screen deaths, there was only one, in ‘The Sound of Thunder,’ when General Fulbright was shot and


This is not to say that during the ninety-four episodes of The A-Team not one of the members got hurt.

“Face, Murdock, and B.A. all got shot and lived. Not to be left out, Hannibal has suffered several broken

bones.”8 This is far from the real ism that is portrayed on today’s shows like NYPD Blue, yet still The

A-Team did fill a lot of the show with action and adventure. And it worked. This show managed to pull

Top Ten overall ratings for its first three years on air. The audi ence bought the fact that in every episode

The A-Team was going to get hired, chase down the bad guys, build some ridiculous contraption from

spare parts, get into a few fights, and no one would end up dead. This was the basic formula that Mr. Ca

nnell used in every show. What an excellent parody.

If one looks further into the genres that The A-Team explored, one could also find subtle references to the

cartoon genre, especially the Warner Brother’s cartoons: The Bugs Bunny Show which was first aired on

network television in the 19 60 on ABC; it was later brought to CBS as The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner

Hour in 1968. Many of the antics and personalities that Bugs and his pals put on can be seen in the

episodes of The A-Team.

One can even see a direct relationship between several of the cartoon characters and the four main

characters on the show. Hannibal can be related to Bugs himself. Both are cunning, and quick-witted,

both manage to escape the bullets from their hunters , and both have oral fixations. Bugs always has to

be eating a carrot in every episode, and Hannibal always has to smoke his cigar.

Another Hannibal parallel can be drawn with Wile E. Coyote. While the coyote always has a plan to

catch the Road Runner, Hannibal always has a plan to catch the bad guys. Of course, the difference here

is that Wile’s plans always blow up in his face, a nd Hannibal’s plans always blow up the bad guys. Even

still, everytime the coyote’s plans go awry he falls off a cliff or gets an anvil dropped on his head. Every

time Hannibal has a plan, it usually involves a large gunfight where no one gets killed. There is even an

episode where the bad guys crash a helicopter into the side of a cliff and manage to escape unharmed

(”The Battle of Bel-Air”).

Face’s suave character can be linked to Pepe Le Pew. Face always knows how to win the women over.

He knows the right things to say and do. He is a woman chaser. In the cartoon Pepe Le Pew always

searches for female skunk, but he always ends up chasin g a female cat that got paint spilled on her back

in the form of a skunk stripe. The difference between these two characters is Face manages to win over

the cute ladies, while Pepe is destined to wallow in his own stench of pick-up lines.

When one thinks of Murdock, crazy is usually the first word that arises. B.A. even coined the phrases

“Howling Mad” and “Crazy Man” to describe Murdock. Murdock has this invisible dog “billy” that he

talks to. A parallel event on The Bugs Bunny/Roa d Runner Hour is the episode “The Slap-Hoppy

Mouse” with Sylvester, Sylvester Jr., and Hippety Hopper (the mouse looking kangaroo). In this episode

Sylvester mistakes Hippety Hopper for a giant mouse. Only Sylvester sees Hippety Hopper, and no one

else believes that there is a giant mouse, not even his son.

Murdock’s character also has close ties with Daffy Duck. Murdock suffers from a bi-polar disorder

which brings on his many forms of mania. In the cartoon Daffy usually goes through many forms of

mania. Daffy is always trying to get the upper hand on B ugs, and goes to insane lengths to try and do so.

Many times Daffy cracks under the pressure that he is only second best to Bugs and goes insane. He

hops around the like a pogo stick yelling, “Woo-hoo.”

B.A.’s tough acting, out of control character can be closely related to the Tasmanian Devil (Taz). In

every episode B.A. is called in to do what he does best, annihilate everything in his way. The Tasmanian

Devil does just that. He spins around out of control destroying trees and rocks or whatever is in his way.

Even the dialect between the two is similar. The mixture of grunts and groans from Taz can only be too

similar to the vernacular of B.A.’s broken English.

Recall in the episode “Duck! Rabbit! Duck!”, which aired on September 22, 1973 on The Bugs

Bunny/Road Runner Hour, Daffy and Bugs were fighting over which hunting season it was with Elmer

Fudd. Bugs kept tricking Daffy into telling Fudd that it w as duck season and blowing Daffy’s head off.

This shenanigan endured the entire episode. Bugs kept tricking Daffy, and Daffy kept getting shot in the


Taking this situation to reality, Daffy can not help being duped. Similarly, who would keep getting tricked

into being drugged before they had to face their biggest fear? This would be B.A. His fear of flying

always forces his team members to slip a d rug into his milk or knock him out with a wooden plank. This

cartoonish prank added the comic relief that The A-Team is so well known for.

Another genre that The A-Team incorporates into their show is that of the soap opera. A main narrative

of a soap opera usually pits man in search of woman or vice versa. It usually has a steamy sex scene or

at least a good kissing scene. These situations always have their irony to them. Sometimes the lovers are

cheating on one another, or they can possible be related. It is a soap opera, and anything can happen.

The A-Team has many episodes that act like a soap opera. They have strange plot twists that mainly

involve Face. He most represents a soap opera character on the show. He always is in pursuit of his next

woman, even while being chased by the ba d guys.

The episode “The Only Church In Town”, was more like a soap opera than an action packed show. In

this episode Face receives a package from Ecuador with his fraternity pin, given fifteen years earlier to

the woman he loved who disappeared from his life. He convinces the team that they have a case in

Ecuador so he can search for his long lost love. It turns out that his love, Leslie (Markie Post), is now a

nun being held prisoner by a rag-tag gang in a sort of nun prison camp. This story which should b e

found bound in a harlequin novel and not on The A-Team, is about the trials of lost loves mixed in with

the obvious gunfight and battle scenes.

Another episode that has some elements of a soap opera is the second part of the two hour episode

“Judgement Day”. In this first half of the episode, the team goes to Italy to rescue a judge’s daughter

from the mob. The second half of this episode take s place aboard a cruise ship. The team hides out

while mobsters on board try to locate them. In one scene, Face, dressed as a doctor, is trying to slip by

some mobsters. Face runs into the nearest bedroom, which is being occupied by none other than a b

eautiful blonde woman. One thing leads to another and Face finds himself on top of her on her bed. Just

before things get really steamy, the woman’s boyfriend, Bruno, walks in. As you can imagine by the

name Bruno, he is a rather close facsimile to the Incredible Hulk. As always, Face manages to con his

way out of this situation and harm’s way. This scene could have easily been played on The Bold and the

Beautiful or The Young and the Restless.

Instances like this made The A-Team fun to watch. One could sit down and watch all ninety-four

episodes and at the start of each episode could ask, “What is Cannell going to bring me next?”

The stereotypes and the mixing of genres helped to make The A-Team, one of NBC’s most successful

shows of the 1980’s. Audiences liked TAT because it appealed to a variety of television interests. If one

liked action, adventure, comedy, c artoons, or soap operas, then one would like The A-Team. It was such

a success that TAT had guest appearances by Boy George, Tia Carrere, Joe Namath, and Hulk Hogan to

name a few.

Obviously, The A-Team was not ground breaking television, but something is to be said about the formula

that the show used. TAT’s first three seasons were an exceptional model of how the cross-genre formula

can make a show a success.

The show’s inevitable demise was the fifth season when Cannell tried to revamp the show. The audience

did not approve of the changes or the new characters.

“Unfortunately, after about two dozen really good episodes, The A-Team itself sometime s falls into the

MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE formula trap, grinding out generally interchangeable confrontations with generic

bad guys.”8 Today’s network television could probably not endure another show like The A-Team. Our

society is too used to the fast past camera movements of ER, and the realism of NYPD Blue. A-Team the

movie? There has been talk of one, but for now A-Team fans will have to resort to watching their

adventures in syndication.


1 Pellegrini, N.N.(”Sockii”). “The Basics”. www.seas.upenn.edu/~pellegri/AFAQ1.html#6: Nov. 3, 1997.

2 “Rethinking/Destratigying the A-Team”. http://www.warwick.ac.uk/~pypgb/ateam/ateam.htm: Nov. 4,


3 Piltz, Leah. “A-Team, ‘Face’”. http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Marina/2779/face.htm: Nov. 3,


4. Pellegrini, Nicole. “On The Jazz”. Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik.

www.xs4all.nl/~jmm/a-team/otj/otj0101.txt: Nov. 8, 1997.

5. Pellegrini, N.N.(”Sockii”). “The Details”. www.seas.upenn.edu/~pellegri/AFAQ3.html#3: Nov. 3,


6 Pellegrini, N.N.(”Sockii”). “The Details”. www.seas.upenn.edu/~pellegri/AFAQ3.html#5: Nov. 3, 1997.

7 Pellegrini, N.N.(”Sockii”). “The Details”. www.seas.upenn.edu/~pellegri/AFAQ3.html#6: Nov. 3, 1997.

8 Pellegrini, Nicole. “On The Jazz”. Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik.

www.xs4all.nl/~jmm/a-team/otj/otj0101.txt: Nov. 8, 1997.


“Looney Tunes On TV!”. http://www.megalink.net/~cooke/looney/tv.html.

Pellegrini, Nicole. “On The Jazz”. Harry Castleman and Walter J. Podrazik.


Pellegrini, N.N.(”Sockii”). “Sockii’s A-Team Homepage”. www.seas.upenn.edu/~pellegri/ateam.html.

Piltz, Leah. “The A-Team Home Page”. http://www.geocities.com/SouthBeach/Marina/2779/a-


“Rethinking/Destratigying the A-Team”. http://www.warwick.ac.uk/~pypgb/ateam/ateam.htm.

Shadowplay. “The Unofficial A-Team Home Page”. http://WWW.Lvdi.Net/~duke101.

copyright 1997 Kristopher Friday

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