Saturday, August 04, 2007

Why B.A. can't stand Murdock: An Explanation

I was pleased to recently discover several A-Team episodes on youtube. I became a huge fan of the A-Team back in the summer of 1993, as I watched syndicated episodes every day. I loved everything from the theme song (which I superimposed with lyrics...I would sing the words "A-Team" to the melody, only to radically switch to singing the character names when they would appear on screen. It is surprisingly fun) to the daytime commercials for law firms and ITT Tech that would air constantly.

I caught a few more episodes on TV Land back in college, saw a few more on DVD last Christmas, and have seen a few on youtube recently. I appreciate the fact that every episode is pretty much the same thing, which only variations on the theme. I also love the cookie cutter one-dimensional villains. They are a real hoot.

Given the cheesiness and the simplicity of the series, I can certainly see how and why critics lambasted it. On the other hand, I've detected an undercurrent of complexity and interesting subtexts (naturally). A recent trend in academic analysis of narratives is interest in the concept of "passing," or characters from oppressed groups who go in disguise or intentionally take on characteristics of more privileged groups. Three members of the A-Team are, befitting fugitive status, constantly "passing."

John Smith thinks of himself as an actor, and has no shortage of disguises or personas at his disposal (though many of them involve cowboy hats are comically over the top). Templeton Peck is a proud con-man. The interchange of these characters by military designations or nicknames ("Hannibal" and "Face") also indicates a fluidity to their identities.

However, the multiple personas of these two characters pale in the face of the complexity exhibited by Captain Jack "Howling Mad" Murdock. Whereas Smith and Peck's alternate identities are transparent to the viewer, greater decoding is necessary to understand that Murdock is even playing a game. His identity as a madman is so convincing, that only in seeing his consistent level-headedness in life threatening situations is one aware that his character is a constructed charade.

To what end does Murdock play such games? After all, as the only non-fugitive in the group, he would seem most free to be "himself." But that, interestingly enough, also empowers him the most to make a game of his identity. The French "deconstructionist" philosophers often spoke of taking a joy in "decentering" and "deconstructing" existing identities and institutions. However, such play is often available only to those who are in a position of power in society. As a non-fugitive white male, Murdock has freedom to play with his identity--creating alternate and multiple identities (fascinatingly seen in "The Taxicab Wars"). One of his other favorite tricks is to imbue significance onto the insignificant--another favorite trick of post-structuralist types. An example would be his pet plant, which was stolen along with B.A. Baracus's van in "Chopping Spree."

B.A., unlike Murdock, doesn't artificially bestow significance on much. His van is precious to him as a symbol of perhaps the one thing in the world that he can manipulate and control, as well as a symbol of power. The other symbolic gesture B.A. makes is intertwined with his character's actor, Mr. T., who told an interviewer that his chains symbolized his ancestor's history as slaves, while the fact that they are gold indicates that he still thinks of himself as a slave, only with a higher price. (It is fascinating how a multi-racial team of heroes who fight for the oppressed never seem to encounter charged racial situations. Does anyone know an episode where race plays a factor?) For B.A., then, context is important, symbolism is rooted in ideology, and meaning is hardly negotiable. He is not a character prone to rumination, but makes cut and dried pronouncements. In some ways, he is also the most idealistic member of the cast, quick with a word of encouragement for the downtrodden.

For Murdock, decontextualization is something to revel in. His ideology is also never verbally expressed, but his persistent encounters with death and danger are re-invented in a milieu of the comical and carnevelesque. His encounters with B.A., while played as a constant source of comic relief for the audience, are at the same time a natural outgrowth of their different outlooks. For me, though, even more amusing than Murdock's interacting with B.A is Murdock's interaction with the villains. It reminds me a bit of the way that Spider-Man traditionally befuddles villains with clever wordplay. However, Murdock combines his unpredictable verbal expressions with shifting personality. The result is that, rather than fueling righteous indignation as with B.A., he leaves villains literally speechless. It's fascinating to me that in a show where guns are constantly used as a way for people to gain power over one another, that postmodernism can sometimes be the A-Team's most potent weapon.


Post a Comment

<< Home