From Pop Culture Obsession to Published Article in Three (not so) Easy Years

June 8, 2015

Written by guest blogger, Anna F. Peppard, PhD Candidate, York University

I have a confession to make: I am obsessed with The A-Team.

I began watching the show more than a decade ago, as a second-year undergrad with access to cable television for the first time, in my first apartment. Initially, I was compelled by a personal connection. I’m a distant relative of the show’s headline star, George Peppard, and people sometimes ask me about this when they hear my name, usually referencing The A-Team.

When I finally watched my first episode, I was hooked for a different reason.

The show was dumb, and yet, not dumb at all. In fact, it didn’t take me long to realize that behind (or, more appropriately, within) all the bloodless explosions, unconvincing disguises, hails of toothless bullets, and wordless montages featuring four grown men constructing Rube Goldberg-esque contraptions to soak ruthless bands of cowboy-hat wearing goons with orange soda, the show is incredibly smart. Politically problematic (to say the least), but fascinatingly sophisticated in its self-reflexive exploitation and exaggeration of the genre conventions of American action heroes.

After my first episode, I never missed the daily reruns, weekdays at 5pm on DejaView. Because I had class at the same time, I usually recorded the show using my VCR (this was before the days of Tivo, Netflic, or YouTube). Sometimes, though, I skipped class to watch. At that point in my life, the sonnets of John Donne just couldn’t compete with the cartoonishly violent exploits of Hannibal, Face, Murdoch, and B.A., criss-crossing the country in their GMC Vandura, fighting the good fight for the little guy against the big guy.

My decade-plus fascination with the show culminated in my first published article, “How Tonto Became Mr. T: The A-Team and the Transformation of the Western in Post-Vietnam America,” which appeared in the Summer 2014 issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies. The journey from fannish obsession to critical analysis was, however, not an easy one. I wrote the original version of the article as a term paper for a graduate seminar, during the first year of my PhD program at York University in Toronto. That paper was not well received. Actually, it was a disaster, very nearly earning me a failing grade—an unsettling experience for a lifelong straight-A student.

A wiser person might have taken that initial reception as a sign, and moved on. But I was sure I had the makings of a good idea buried somewhere in the thick file folder of hand-written, colour-coded notes I’d compiled while re-watching every episode of the show.

I stuck with it, and presented a revised version of the paper at the Canadian Association of American Studies conference, in 2011. That was my first academic conference, and I was more than a little nervous; I remember my voice wobbling as I tried to explain the significance of Hannibal Smith’s obsession with aquatic monster b-movies. To my relief, though, my conference paper was much better received than my term paper. So when the conference attendees were invited to revise their papers into articles for possible publication in CRAS, I thought I might as well toss my hat in the ring. Several months later, I was thrilled—and more than a little relieved—when my article was accepted for publication.

During the three years that it took to turn my once-disastrous term paper into a published article, by far my biggest challenge was untangling my own vexed relationship with the subject matter. As any academic who studies popular culture will tell you, writing about something you love a bit too much—something of which you’re not only an expert, but also a fan—can be very difficult. It involves interrogating your own emotions, your own desires, confronting your own manipulation by the entertainment machine, and your potential implication in the dissemination of questionable politics; inevitably, it means loving your obsession a bit less, or at the very least, a bit less unreservedly.

And yet, it’s also very rewarding, and, I think, very important. The study of popular culture is, essentially, the study of pleasure; it explores the human condition by examining what makes people happy. As John Fiske argues in his influential book Television Culture, even the most obviously escapist texts can teach us a great deal when we take the time to consider “what is escaped from, why escape is necessary, and what is escaped to.” From 1983 to 1987, The A-Team reflected and placated the complex needs and fantasies of a diverse group of 20 million people who once tuned in to watch it every week, and it’s these needs and fantasies that I tried to uncover and, hopefully, understand in the final version of my article.

I started out thinking that The A-Team was exceptional. And, in some ways, it is; I can’t quite say that there’s ever been another show quite like it. In another sense, though, it’s just like a great many other popular texts: seemingly unique while being, at its core, intensely familiar, sophisticated less in its politics than in its modes of representation, that is, in its ability to tell an old story in a new way, one that feels relevant to a social and political landscape that is, like the show itself, mostly a well-disguised return of the same.

These days, I’m still obsessed with The A-Team, even if I don’t love it quite as much as I used to. I will, however, always love that it began what will hopefully be a long career of analyzing popular culture.

Anna F. Peppard’s “How Tonto Became Mr. T: The A-Team and the Transformation of the Western in Post-Vietnam America”, can be found in the Summer 2014 issue of the Canadian Review of American Studies. Click Here to Read.

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