The A-Team: “Cowboy George”
So in 1986, Boy George appeared on an A-Team episode, and it was glorious.
For anyone who missed out on The A-Team’s contribution to the pop-culture zeitgeist of the eighties, it was a wildly popular hyper-macho action series about a wisecracking quartet of Vietnam veterans-turned-fugitives-turned-mercenaries: team leader Hannibal (George Peppard), pretty-boy con artist Face (Dirk Benedict), legally-insane pilot Murdock (Dwight Schultz), and muscle-bound softie B.A. (Mr. T). Airing on NBC from 1983 to 1987, it somehow managed to be witless and violent and inane and charming all at once. For anyone who missed out on Boy George’s contribution to the pop-culture zeitgeist of the eighties, he’s an androgynous English pop star known for his heavy makeup and penchant for cross-dressing, who, with his New Wave band Culture Club, had a number of catchy hits throughout the decade. So, y’know, obviously this was a synergistic pairing.
This episode, “Cowboy George”, was written by series creator Stephen J. Cannell. Here’s a random yet delightful fact: It was directed by dancer/choreographer Tony Mordente, who is forever near and dear to my heart for playing the vicious hothead Action (“How’s the action on your mother’s side of the street, Action?”) in the film version of West Side Story.
|"You wanna live in this lousy world? Play it cool."|
(Somehow, forty minutes or so just vanished while I was watching various West Side Story clips on YouTube looking for a screenshot. I’m a huge sucker for West Side Story. Because when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way, from your first cigarette to your last dying day.)
As the episode opens, Face and Murdock drive into the tiny town of Dry Creek, Arizona. They’re not here on official A-Team business: Face is just pulling one of his signature scams, and Murdock, on leave from the mental ward at the VA hospital, is along for the ride. The episode slows down for a while as Face explains his con to Murdock in painstaking detail; it’s like the creative staff figured the viewers would be riveted by the inner workings of Face’s brain. Hey, maybe some viewers were. Me, I wandered into the kitchen to fix myself a grilled cheese sandwich while Face yammered on, returning only when Murdock started doing something zany. Posing as a booking agent, Face has arranged for country singer Cowboy George to play at a rough-and-tumble roadhouse called the Floor ‘Em (there’s a darling painting of two cowboys beating the crap out of each other on the side of the building). Face heads to Dry Creek’s tiny airport to pick up Cowboy George… and finds Boy George waiting for him instead.
For his part, Boy George was led to believe Culture Club would be playing at the Forum, not the Floor ‘Em. He’s good sport about the mix-up, however, and cheerfully heads over to the Floor ‘Em with Face and Murdock to check out the new venue. A big chunk of credit for this episode working as well as it does—and really, it’s every bit as delightful as it is deeply stupid—is due to the infectious glee of Boy George, who seems to be having a blast at the surreality of it all, grinning from ear to ear and giggling his way through his lines.
Boy George is willing to go through with the gig, but the roadhouse’s manager, a tough guy named Danford (L.Q. Jones), isn’t sold on him. Of the Floor ‘Em’s patronage, which mostly consists of hardscrabble workers on the local pipeline, Danford snarls, “They don’t want no English rock star with eyeball glitter!” Well, that’s their loss. Everybody should want an English rock star with eyeball glitter.
Danford is so incensed about the switch in performers, in fact, that he threatens to kill Face if he can’t produce Cowboy George in time for the concert. Thanks to this wild overreaction, Murdock and Face begin to suspect that something sinister is afoot. After Murdock trails one of Danford’s henchmen to a stockpile of machine guns, he and Face call in Hannibal and B.A. for reinforcements.
So Hannibal, the team’s resident master of disguise (let us all try very, very hard not to think about the first season, in which Hannibal would routinely dress up as a Chinese laundry attendant to evade the military police), poses as Cowboy George and reassures Danford that he’ll perform at the Floor ‘Em, with Culture Club as his opening act. While Boy George is convinced he’ll win over the hearts of the pipeline workers, Face is less certain: “This audience might not be keyed to your demographics.” “Nonsense! Everybody likes Culture Club,” Boy George says with assurance. “Hey, Face, he’s right—they’re great!” B.A. chimes in.
Mr. T seems to be having almost as much giddy fun as Boy George in this episode. Mr. T, you are worth your weight in gold, sir.
Posing as a famous DJ, Murdock heads to a local radio station to promote the concert. When his psychosis du jour kicks in (this time, he’s got “Three Blind Mice” as performed by the Lennon Sisters stuck on endless repeat in his brain), he barricades himself in the control booth and plays a Lennon Sisters LP over and over and over again, while the station owner pounds frantically on the door. It’s sometimes hard to tell if Murdock is really insane, or just wildly self-amusing.
Deducing why there’s a poster for a play about a gay Jewish drag queen from New York hanging prominently on the wall of a country-western radio station in rural Arizona is left to the viewers. It’s probably some kind of convoluted allusion to Boy George; I can only hope it was meant kindly.
(It was a relief to go back and watch this episode for the first time since 1986 and realize there was no slur worse than “glitter prince” directed at Boy George. Because… he’s a cross-dressing gay English pop star marooned amidst the cartoonish machismo of The A-Team. The tone could’ve gone sour very fast.)
Culture Club goes on as the opening act at the Floor ‘Em. The crowd boos at first, but it turns out Boy George was right—everybody does love Culture Club. By the second number, he’s got the crowd eating out of his hand.
Meanwhile, the A-Team discovers that the concert’s being used as a cover: While all the pipeline workers are at the Floor ‘Em, Danford and his gang attack an armored truck and steal the pipeline’s entire payroll. The A-Team intervenes and promptly steals it right back. Machine guns are fired, stuff gets blown up, the usual. Forgetting, as they so often do, that they’re a pack of very well-known wanted fugitives who should probably take pains to steer clear of law enforcement, Hannibal, B.A. and Face waltz into the local sheriff station and turn the robbers over to the sheriff… who turns out to be in cahoots with Danford. He swipes the payroll and tosses them in jail.
Murdock dons a frock and bonnet and poses as Hannibal’s pregnant wife to smuggle explosives into the jail. The A-Team blast their way out and, with Boy George at the wheel of their van, speed away to the airport, where they arrive just in time to apprehend the thieves and recover the stolen payroll again.
And it all ends with another concert at the Floor ‘Em, with Boy George shooting a jaunty thumbs-up to the A-Team while performing a lively rendition of “Karma Chameleon.”
Well! That was unfathomably stupid, and yet kind of delightful. The same can be said for much of television in the eighties, but it rings especially true in this case.