With the release of a big-budget A-Team movie right around the corner (as I write this), Universal has decided to put out the complete series of the original A-Team in a nice big black van package that looks nice on a shelf.
For those of you too young to remember, the A-Team was a hit show from the 80's the coined the phrases "I love it when a plan comes together" and the ubiquitous (at the time) "I pity the fool...." Filled with over the top cartoon violence and a healthy dose of comedy, the show is a lot of fun but far removed from reality.
For those who aren't familiar with the show, it's about a military squad who served in
The A-Team is lead by Colonel John "Hannibal" Smith (George Peppard), a master of disguise who and brains of the outfit. He's the one who comes up with the outrageous plans that have a slim chance of working, and then manages to pull it off. He's supported by "Face" (Dirk Benedict), a conman who can acquire just about anything from a private jet to armor plating on short notice and with no money, "Howling Mad" Murdock (Dwight Schultz) the pilot and semi-comic relief (he got his nickname because he's totally crazy (in a funny way of course! In the 80's crazy people were funny the same way drunks were funny in the 50's and 60's), and B.A. Baracus (Mr. T) the strong man of the team. (The BA stands for "Bad Attitude", not "Bad Ass" this was network TV of course.)
Initially they're assisted by plucky reporter Amy Allen (Melinda Culea). She gets them information from her newspaper sources and, as she boasts in the pilot, she actually has access to a computer at work! About half way through the second season she's replaced by Tawnia Baker (Marla Heasley) who finishes out the season.
Over the course of the five seasons, there's little variation to the basic plot. The A-Team encounters someone regular, average person who needs their help going up against a powerful individual or group, they come up with some crazy scheme to take down the baddie, something goes wrong, and finally they're force improvise a solution in which a lot of things go "boom" before the happy resolution.
The writers knew what their target audience wanted and made sure to give it to them each week, which leads to the critique that has been almost universally leveled against the show: It is very formulaic. Yeah, it is. But so what? Most shows are (how many times did Lucy try to get into the act at Ricky's club on I Love Lucy?) It's an enjoyable formula though and like many of today's action shows (like Leverage or Burn Notice, two shows I enjoy) The A-Team is not meant to be taken seriously. It's escapist fun, and if you enjoy seen a group of guys cornered in an old garage with only an acetylene welding rig, some high compression springs, a lot of sheet metal, four bowling balls and a jack hammer fight their way past the small army that's waiting for them on the outside, this is the show for you. And honestly, who wouldn't enjoy that.
It's a little harder to suspend your disbelief when it comes to the cartoon-like action scenes. There are frequent machine gun fights, Murdoch will drop bombs on the enemy, cars go flying left and right, but it's very rare that anyone gets hurt (unless it's integral to the plot.) It's almost comical the way machine gun bullets will plow a path at the feet of the enemy (or the A-Team themselves) or how a jeep will run over a mine, flip in the air, and land with a 'thud' only to have the driver get out and run for cover without a scratch on him. But the show is escapist fun that the whole family can enjoy and that sort of thing rarely comes with a body count.
There isn't much continuity in the program, and even subplots get dropped without mention when they've outworn their welcome. (BA's fear of flying and breaking Mad Dog out of the psychiatric hospital are a couple of examples.) The military officers who are hounding them change on a regular basis without much explanation too. They do keep up the 'fugitives from justice' theme though, up until the last season.
In season five the creators were faced with falling ratings (justifiably... season four had a larger share of weak episodes) so they tried to change the formula a little to bring in new viewers, but not enough to alienate the fans that were still watching. In this season the A-Team is captured and found guilty of killing their old commanding officer (the one who sent them on the bank heist.) Faced with execution, they agree to work under the command of General Hunt Stockwell (Robert Vaughn) who will give them dangerous, sometimes suicidal, missions. If they do as he says however, they'll all earn Presidential pardons and become free men. This season also sees the addition of Frankie Santana (Eddie Velez), a special effects expert who becomes a member of the group.
These changes didn't work that well. Having the group work for the government took some of the excitement out of the show, but worse was Frankie Santana who never really fit in and came across as annoying. That's not to say the season was bad, it wasn't. It just wasn't as good as the years that preceded it. There were still some enjoyable episodes and this final outing is still worth watching. It's only 13 episodes long, so really a half season, but the show ended at the right time. It ran its course taken as a whole it's a really good series.
The packaging, like the show itself, is a bit over the top which is cool. This complete series set arrives in a cool A-Team van-style cardboard case. Opening up the back reveals five single width keepcases, each with a single season. One of the nice things about this is that the cases inside the van are laying on their side, so that the van itself is slightly shorter than a regular DVD case. Smart thinking Universal - this will fit on a DVD shelf with no problems. I really like it.
Recorded in the 80's, the show is presented with a two channel mono soundtrack. It's a shame that there wasn't a 5.1 mix available for the show, since it really would have benefited from one, especially during the action scenes. As it is the program sounds fine, thought he range is a bit limited. There's some slight distortion in some of the louder scenes, especially in the earlier seasons, which I was surprised to hear. All five seasons have English SDH subtitles.
The full frame image is okay. Like the audio, it's limited to the technology available when it was made. The picture isn't very sharp, and the colors are a bit on the drab side, but nothing too drastic. There is a little bit of print damage, a spot here and there, but it's very minor. On the digital side of things the show looks pretty good. There's some minor aliasing, but that's about it.
This collection ports over all of the bonus items from the single-season sets, which isn't saying much. There is a episode of Knight Rider with the season two set, and a 'bonus A-Team episode' with season four: "Point of No Return" which is from season 5 (and hence included twice in the collection.) Season five has a nice featurette, Rumors of Soldiers of Fortune, in which series creator Stephen J. Cannell is interviewed about the genesis of the program and working with the cast. I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more extra included. Who wouldn't enjoy a commentary track by the surviving members of the team reminiscing about the show and its popularity? I'd love something like that, but alas there isn't one.
An iconic show from the 80's, The A-Team is still fun with it's over the top cartoon violence and its unforgettable characters. It's an enjoyable way to spend a mindless 45 minutes. While the lack of solid extras is a disappointing, the collectable packaging is cook and takes some of the sting out of that omission. Fans of the show that already have the individual seasons don't need to upgrade, but for people who haven't gotten around to adding this classic to their libraries, the set comes with a strong recommendation.