INSPO: The A-Team

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

I am not clear on where we currently stand in the cycle of fashionable attitudes regarding the A-Team. Are we on ironic appreciation, nostalgic re-appropriation, or overly-sincere adoration? To be perfectly honest, I am not clear on where my own attitudes towards the original series lie. As with many of these kinds of series, I suspect I like them more in theory than I do in practice but the theory is so sound that it makes a great subject for a series of articles about using non-horrific media as inspiration for a horror RPG.

Co-created by Stephen J. Cannell (creator of The Rockford Files) and Frank Lupo (the show-runner for Walker: Texas Ranger) The A-Team was originally pitched as a combination of The Dirty Dozen, Mission Impossible, The Magnificent Seven and Mad Max with “Mr. T driving the Car”. The fact that the show was originally pitched as a vehicle for a living meme like Mr. T is absolutely fascinating as one of the most striking things about The A-Team 38 years after its first episode is the strength of its ensemble cast: They had Hollywood royalty in the form of George Peppard, a matinee idol-type with a successful action-adventure TV series behind him in the form of Dirk Benedict, and a character actor so singular and memorable that Dwight Schultz essentially wound up re-visiting Murdoch on two separate Star Trek series (albeit a version of the character who went to engineering college rather than flight school). Cannell and Lupo were said to be a bit anxious about the viability of the project but George Peppard famously declared it a hit before the cameras had even started rolling.

While A-team lore would expand a bit over their four series run, like a lot of TV series from the ‘70s and ‘80s, the basic concept was simple enough to be explained in the opening credits: The A-team were a group of decorated Vietnam vets who had been imprisoned for a crime they did not commit. Unable to support themselves through any other means, the group fell back on their special forces training, disappeared into the underground, and made a living as over-trained and over-equipped hired muscle for a variety of small-to-medium business owners who were being failed by the system.

It’s interesting to note that while the ratings for the A-team would eventually crash, forcing abandonment of the series mid-season, this crash only came after the series changed its format by having the group receive a full pardon, re-integrate the US military, and become part of the American colonial war machine. While there’s an obvious aesthetic dimension to the failure of this pivot (people modifying old tanks in the jungle is less visually interesting than people weaponising farm vehicles and deploying them in suburbia), I think we can also mention the legacy of the Vietnam war and suggest that Americans in 1987 might have had less of an appetite for stories about American soldiers being illegally deployed in foreign countries.

Nowadays, this might seem a bit weird as the full-court institutional press behind the Iraq war and the on-going attempts to protect the architects and cheerleaders of the war from professional consequences mean that Americans have now spent twenty years being conditioned to accept the idea that America needs a permanent colonial war machine. This is related to the way that ‘Respect the Troops’ is now deployed both as a form of right-wing virtue signalling and a means of policing debate about American foreign policy. Nowadays, Americans are encouraged to view American military volunteers as heroic public servants rather than morally vacuous losers and psychotically ambitious weirdos who whored themselves out to the blood god of American imperialism but this attitude towards the military is only possible because it piggy-backs on an older set of attitudes born of the fact that America’s colonialist thugs were (up until Vietnam) people who were dragooned into the military by forced conscription.

The A-Team inhabits a similar set of attitudes as the original Rambo film in that both sets of characters are people who were transformed by the American military-industrial complex and then cast aside when no longer of use. Though much lighter in tone than Rambo, the A-Team is a series about Vietnam vets who, were it not for their super-human skillsets, would be crippled by their combined personal flaws and PTSD. A later episode of the A-Team establishes that the group were once Green Berets but these Green Berets are undoubtedly closer to the scarred, traumatised mess that is John Rambo than the heroic patriots who helped liberate the Vietnamese people from Communism in the eponymous film starring John Wayne:

No less fascinating than the series’ attitudes towards the war was the series’ attitudes towards conventional law and order. The A-team was a very light series that took inspiration from much darker subject so while attitudes to the Vietnam war seemed to draw on those of anti-militarist films like Rambo: First Blood and Walter Hills’ Southern Comfort, a lot of the plots felt like lightened-up versions of 1970s vigilante movies like Michael Winner’s Deathwish and John Carpenter’s Assault on Precinct 13.

Much like Deathwish, the A-Team is set against a background of de-industrialisation and white flight. Most of the stories revolve around a small-to-medium sized business owner who is being harassed by the owners of a larger and more predatory business. In some cases, these larger business-owners are backed by local gangs, in others they are backed by corrupt law enforcement. While the exact details of the set-up varies from episode to episode as you might expect, the A-Team tends to place mom-and-pop business owners at the centre of their moral universe and these small-business owners only reach out to professional mercenaries when their communities and legal institutions fail them.  The other day, I was trying to come up with a stereotypical episode of the A-Team and I cooked up the idea of an episode in which an artisanal soda maker is being driven out of business by a brewery, forcing the A-Team to step in and build some sort of armoured personnel carrier featuring kinetic weapons powered by canisters of compressed carbon dioxide. I then had a google and realised that this was the exact plot of the series three episode “trouble brewing”.

It is worth remembering that the A-Team dates from a time when it simply was not possible to binge-watch entire series and when networks assumed that a sizeable chunk of the audience for any given episode would be coming to the series having never watched it before. As a result, the A-Team is far more formulaic than most contemporary TV and if you do try to watch more than a couple of episodes in a row, you rapidly begin noticing re-used footage and the repetition of certain stunt set ups. You could almost build a drinking game around the number of times a stunt man in an ill-fitting light-blue or tan three-piece suit crawls out of a wrecked town car and dusts himself off before theatrically stumbling off-camera. More grating is the fact that, for the most part, the A-team’s plotting usually involves a degree of passivity in so far as they will turn up, insert themselves into the lives of the small business-owners and send a small group of goons running for the hills thereby prompting a full-scale retaliation that is dealt with through a combination of unconventional tactics and imaginatively weaponised machinery. I’ll return to this question in a bit but I would say that the real flaw to the original series was the sheer lack of plot each episode tends to contain, even if the lack of plot does account for why the characters are so memorable. I mean… if you don’t have to explain the plot, why not have a couple of scenes in which Dwight Schultz affects a foreign accent while Mr. T growls at him?

As someone who enjoys watching TV but feels quite alienated from existing recommendation channels, I do spend quite a bit of time watching the first episode of random TV shows that turn up on streaming services and one of the things I have learned from this process of sifting is that American TV networks are absolutely desperate to make another A-team. Indeed, while the talk of peak TV and the hype surrounding Netflix has conditioned us to view TV as this font of binge-worthy content, it is interesting to note that American terrestrial networks are still producing disposable genre dross comparable to the stuff they pumped out in the 1980s. While procedural series do retain some visibility, a style of TV that is frequently glossed over by critics is action-adventure series like the A-Team. Indeed, I would argue that TV series like Leverage and Scorpion are nothing more or less than attempts to remake the A-team without having to pay for the rights.

Leverage first aired in 2008 and ran for about five seasons before being revived in 2021 as Leverage: Redemption. Much like the A-Team, the series is shot through with dark ideas but maintains a tone so light as to be almost comedic. The series also revolves around a flawed-but-brilliant ‘mastermind’ type figure who surrounded himself with a group of flawed individuals whose personal problems are only-just outweighed by their superhuman skillsets. In an interesting departure from the original format, Leverage is not about military veterans but career criminals who become fabulously rich by ripping off a Bernie Madoff-style villain in the pilot, prompting them to set themselves up as a consultancy firm that helps regular Americans who have been failed by corrupt institutions. Intriguingly, while the pilot was made in the wake of the financial crisis and contained a very real element of class war and Robin Hood-style financial redistribution, the series itself looks a lot more like the A-Team in so far as it tends to centre small family-run businesses fighting off larger less moral companies. Another interesting departure from the original formula is that while the A-team tended to be plot-light and build towards spectacular action set-pieces, Leverage is a lot more plot-heavy in so far as every episode feels like a miniature heist movie. I remember once hearing an interview with one of the writers in which he admitted that this formula turned out to be something of a rod for the writers’ backs as coming up with dozens of different heists that are all different and all fit into 40 minutes is actually incredibly difficult to pull off and you can tell this from the way that quality levels vary enormously from episode to episode; one week Leverage feels like Oceans 11 run at double-fast speed but this is immediately followed by an episode in which everyone wears a silly costume and the entire plot feels like a series of random, unfortunate events designed merely to pad a single compelling but unsubstantial idea out to forty minutes.

Equally frustrating and intriguing in its similarities to the A-Team is the NBC series Scorpion that aired between 2014 and 2018. Scorpion was loosely based upon the real-life story of a genius Irishman who hacked the NASA website at the age of 13 and wound up being recruited by the NSA. Much like the A-Team, Scorpion involves a group of flawed-but-brilliant individuals who solve problems. The first major departure from the original formula is that rather than being presented as traumatised and marginalised figures, the characters in Scorpion are all over-achievers who are, for a number of reasons, alienated from other humans. In fact, one of the regular cast is a working-class single mum whose sole purpose is to perform emotional labour on behalf of her boss and then quietly take him aside and explain to him why normal people don’t like being aggressively talked down to by arrogant wankers with pocket-protectors. Autism and neuro-divergence hangs over Scorpion like the spirit of Communism as the writers never once mention neuro-atypicality but somehow manage to write every single character as a different kind of savant. Scorpion makes a lot more sense if you assume that all of the major characters are either psychopaths or on the spectrum as the only alternative is that a bunch of super-geniuses somehow lack the wit to realise that being incredibly rude to someone’s face might make them less likely to go out of their way for you in future.

Scorpion also suffers for the fact that it positions its characters as part of the American intelligence community and so spends a lot of its time having to explain that while the group are employees of the NSA and work closely with both them and the CIA, they’re not involved in any of the heinous black-blooded evil shit that tends to flow through those particular corridors of powers. The differences between Scorpion and the original A-Team shine an interesting light on how attitudes towards the American state have shifted and goes some way towards explaining some of the differences between the A-team and its cinematic reboot.

Positioned between these two off-brand copy-cats is the incredibly unlikely and (frankly, under-appreciated) 2010 attempt at a cinematic reboot of the A-Team itself. Written and directed by Joe Carnahan (who also directed attempted revivals of both the Bad Boys and Death Wish series) the A-Team film shared the original series’ commitment to the idea that star power can paper over the cracks of a ludicrous central concept. However, rather than simply casting modern actors to play 1980s TV characters, the film made a serious attempt to both update the core concept and re-think the characters in ways that accounted for some of the original series’ dramatic eccentricities.

Liam Neeson’s version of Hannibal Smith leans into the idea of his being a tactical genius and expands his famous catchphrase “I love it when a plan comes together” into a belief in a kind of long-term karmic providence that is somewhere between the white-hat moralism of traditional cinematic heroes and a Dirk Gently-style belief that everything reveals itself as inter-connected to those with the skills and the desire to look. Equally interesting is Bradley Cooper’s Face whose easy charm and good looks are presented as things that the character desperately wants to overcome. He knows he can bullshit people and he knows that he can seduce any woman he desires, but he would rather be a planner and a devoted partner to a single woman. Another interesting departure from the core text was Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s version of B.A. Baracus as a more fragile and friendly presence who has serious misgivings about the way that he has been funnelled into playing the role of the thug. There’s even a lovely moment when B.A. discovers a version of Buddhism and so refuses to kill anyone, thus explaining the way that episodes of the original series were full of machine-gun fire and yet nobody ever seemed to get seriously injured. Least interesting of all the re-working is Sharlto Copley’s version of Murdoch who is under-written and feels very much like a pale imitation of the Schultz original.

The A-Team film begins nearly a decade before the group are forced to enter the underground. In this continuity, Hannibal and Face are operating on the margins of both the US intelligence community and the US military. When a mission involving a corrupt Mexican general goes wrong, Hannibal opens himself up to providence and allows a plan to come together by recruiting both B.A. and Murdoch who agree to re-join the military and wind up serving under Smith as Army Rangers.

It is fascinating that the film’s writers went straight to the set-up that killed off the original series but contemporary American audiences are far-better inclined towards their country’s illicit war machine and far more likely to see people in the underground as little more than terrorists. Indeed, one of the weirder things about the set-up for the original series is the idea that, after escaping prison, the A-Team went ‘underground’ like 1960s political dissidents. What is this underground? Does it still exist? Did it even exist back then? The concept was never touched upon by the series but evidently early-to-mid 1980s audiences were happy with the idea that there was a weird demi-monde populated by mercenaries who hire themselves out to small business owners.

The cinematic A-Team are emphatically not “mercenaries”. In fact, the film even goes out of its way to position Smith’s team as both politically and morally opposed to the unaccountable savagery deployed by US Military contracting firms like Blackwater. Smith’s team is also positioned (alongside the Army Rangers) as opposed to the CIA who are viewed as self-serving morally bankrupt cowards. The cinematic A-Team are good troops who conduct their black ops with a degree of restraint and honour. They are only forced into the underground by the betrayal of a senior officer and the double-dealing of the CIA. It is interesting how often films of this era do a weird moral dance around both the history of the CIA and the on-going calamity that is American foreign policy; think of all of those Mission: Impossible films in which Tom Cruise is betrayed and manipulated by bad actors within the US Intelligence community and it’s hard not to laugh at the attempt to both have one’s cake (spies and special forces operators are cool) and eat it too (our characters are morally-righteous heroes).

Another interesting departure from the original concept for the A-Team is that the group’s mechanical aptitude and Smith’s unconventional tactics do not combine to produce weird scrapheap challenge-style vehicles but rather elaborate heists involving an array of disguises, elaborate stunts and weird gadgets. Somewhere around the fifth film in the series, The Fast and The Furious shifted from being a car-chase movie franchise to being a heist movie franchise and the cinematic A-Team feels very much like a proof of concept for this particular genre recipe. In some ways, it is not surprising that the film has not endured as while the human elements of the film are intensely charming and well-realised, the action scenes are almost universally terrible; a succession of over-edited shoot-outs culminating in a high-energy CGI–based confrontation at the Port of Los Angeles that feels just as tedious and unsubstantial as those Marvel movies that somehow manage to make huge spaceships crashing into alien cityscapes feel oppressively inconsequential.

It is easy to see why the cinematic reboot of the A-Team failed to catch the public imagination. Aside from the fact that the DNA of the original series now features in loads of different TV and film franchises, the relative paucity of the action direction combined with the fact that the film emerged at a time when Hollywood seemed intent on flooding the market with 1980s nostalgia meant that it struggled to find its natural audience. While American audiences are now considerably more tolerant of films about heroic colonial warlords, the attempt to shift the A-team closer to the American intelligence community did mean surrendering a degree of counter-cultural cachet that sat well with the odd-ball characters of the original series. As series like Leverage and The Fast and The Furious suggest, there is an audience for weirdo criminals doing exciting crimes but placing those weirdos inside the American government results in a disconnect between the whimsicality of the fiction and the darkness of the reality against which said fiction is positioned. It’s one thing to watch a series about special forces dudes firing cabbages at bullying landlords, but quite another to watch a film about people putting on funny accents and stealing a billion dollars from a bank in central Baghdad.

The lesson I have taken from all of these variations on the A-Team is that aside from being extraordinarily flexible both in terms of tonal range and setting, heist stories can also pack some serious thematic weight if rooted in a clear vision of how society works. Series like the Oceans and Now You See Me films feel insubstantial because they are, by and large, set against a backdrop of heightened unreality (casinos in the case of the Oceans series and stage magic in the case of the Now You See Me films). However, if you resist the urge to set your heist in a colourful fantasy, you can actually get at some quite potent ideas as heist stories are invariably about observing a social system, noticing its flaws and using one’s skills to exploit them. Though this was never the intention, the A-Team reboot actually serves as an interesting critique of US foreign policy as the implication of the film is that no matter how morally virtuous and skilled your soldiers may be, they will always be fighting against a system that is brutal, inhumane, and set up to benefit the biggest psychos on the planet.

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