Mister T “Mystery of the Golden Medallion” (part 1 of 6)
|Summary: In this, the pilot episode of Mr. T’s cartoon series, a new kid joins his gymanstics team. The other gymnasts take occasional breaks from ostracizing him from their Cool Kid World to solve a mystery where crooks are stealing—and then smashing—golden medallions. (Hence, the title.) Meanwhile, Mr. T puts on his Mr. T clothes and stands in his Mr. T spot and does his Mr. T thing, being all fake-mean and fake-threatening like we’ve come to expect, and tossing off tough-guy quips that become instant classics, each and every one.|
Of all the celebrities that have become cooler in retrospect (William Shatner, Pee Wee Herman, Martha Stewart, etc.), the coolest of them all has got to be Mr. T. You can’t deny it; Just look at all the various pages on various websites devoted to the character—er, I mean, to the guy (it’s easy to get confused sometimes): There’s Mr. T vs. Everything, Mr. T Ate My Balls, the T’inator, not to mention obsessive Mr. T behavior from sites like Sean Baby, X-Entertainment, and Inzenity. (No links, because all those sites are pretty easy to find if you’re so inclined. And at this particular moment, I’m not inclined.)
Of course, the Agony Booth is no exception, because a couple of years ago I recapped his 1984 “inspirational” video Be Somebody …Or Be Somebody’s Fool. At the time, it was mostly an experiment for me, seeing if I could recap something that wasn’t a movie (I mean, something besides Night of Horror). But the response was overwhelming, and Be Somebody is still one of my most liked (and most visited) recaps. So, I figured, why not continue this site’s relationship with Mr. T with an entire section devoted to his 1980s animated series Mister T? What can I say? Page hits are like crack cocaine to me. Anyhow, this makes Mr. T this site’s latest Repeat Offender.
If you’re one of the few cave-dwelling types who still needs a primer on Mr. T, check out the intro to the Be Somebody recap. That still pretty much says it all. Although, there is one small detail that I regret leaving out way back when: You see, back in 1995, Mr. T was diagnosed with cancer. Which isn’t as sad as it sounds, not only because he eventually beat the disease, but because the specific type of cancer he had was a very rare type known as T-cell lymphoma. I kid you not. If there is a god, he definitely has a twisted sense of humor.
I remember watching Mr. T’s cartoon back when I was a kid. Okay, I don’t think I really watched it, but that sure didn’t stop me from making fun of it. I didn’t exactly hate Mr. T back in the ’80s. I don’t think I even disliked him, really, but it’s fair to say I wasn’t exactly waiting with baited breath for his next appearance on my TV screen.
See, Mr. T is one of those things—like Duran Duran or Family Ties or the Transformers cartoon or Ronald Reagan—that actually kind of sucked at the time. It’s only twenty years of nostalgia that make even the most inconsequential entertainment and/or personalities seem fascinating in retrospect. (I mean, how many reality shows has Tammy Faye been on so far?) Back then, nobody was ever really into Mr. T, at least not anyone you took seriously. I mean, there might have been a couple of kids wearing Mr. T shirts to school, but man, talk about embarrassing. For themselves as well as everyone around them. So back in grade school, there was no better way to get a laugh than cracking jokes about Mr. T’s hilariously ludicrous (even for 9 year olds) cartoon series. (Amazingly, that still holds true over twenty years later.)
But for an ’80s cartoon, Mister T was really no worse than the rest of the Saturday morning line-up on the (then) Big Three networks. Practically every show back then was trying to shove some half-assed “lesson” down our throats in every episode. Don’t believe me? Say the following phrase to anyone over 25: “And now you know.” Yes, knowing is half the battle, as our friends on G.I. Joe used to remind us every day after school. The other half of the battle? They never told us. I assume it had something to do with owning a switchblade.
The ’80s were a weird time to grow up, because it was kind of like this limbo between the no holds barred slapstick violence of cartoons of the ’60s and ’70s, and the (generally) more thoughtful kid’s fare of today. Somewhere around that time, Dr. Spock or somebody said it wasn’t good to let kids watch cartoon animals shooting at each other, or pushing each other off cliffs. So in place of that, guess we got? Heavy moralizing. Drugs are bad, the handicapped are people too, don’t let a stranger touch you, stay in school. Stop, drop, roll. No, go, tell.
As a result of all this moralizing, the entertainment value of cartoons almost became beside the point. Networks could churn out the dumbest, most poorly-animated crap possible, but as long as it appeared to provide healthy messages to kids, nobody batted an eye.
Thankfully, these days the networks realize kids are a lot like adults, in that they respond a lot better to lessons not forced down their throats. But even I have to admit that the high moralizing of ’80s cartoons meshed incredibly well with the high moralizing of Mr. T.
I don’t really need to tell you about Mr. T’s never-ending quest to be the ideal role model for kids, do I? If so, then you desperately need to get hold of the “TV Funhouse” shorts on SNL where Robert Smigel so deftly parodied this very cartoon series. Once you see them, you’ll never be able to look at Mr. T again without thinking, “Stay in milk, drink your drugs, and don’t do school!”
A blatantly preachy cartoon like this one was almost tailor-made for Mr. T. Which may be why everyone overlooked the shoddy animation and incoherent scripts that usually went into an episode of Mister T. On some occasions, you’ll wonder if there was any kind of quality control in place at all.
I suspect not much, considering the studio that made Mister T was Ruby-Spears Enterprises, purveyors of Saturday morning crap like It’s Punky Brewster, The Mork & Mindy/Laverne & Shirley with the Fonz Show, Rubik the Amazing Cube, Turbo Teen, and a cartoon series based on Rambo [!]. In fact, the animated Mr. T made his first appearance on the premiere of Alvin and the Chipmunks, another Ruby-Spears production. So by now, you should have a pretty good idea of the junk that’s in store for us, and if not, you probably didn’t grow up in the ’80s. (Even though I’d bet good money that there are large numbers of people looking back fondly on every single cartoon I just mentioned.)
In this series, Mr. T and a gang of young gymnasts ride around in a tour bus and solve crimes. (Mr. T’s relationship to the gymnasts is never made clear. Is he their coach? Teacher? Spiritual advisor? Feng shui consultant? It’s really not talked about.) Each episode culminates in an obvious lesson that Mr. T explains in live-action bookends. Yes, live-action bookends, featuring Mr. T himself. I mean, no one would have considered getting Robin Williams or Henry Winkler to shoot live introductions to that Mork and Mindy and Fonz cartoon. Hell, Hulk Hogan didn’t even provide his own voice for his cartoon. But how could you possibly have a show called Mister T without the real, live, flesh and blood Mr. T?
Just one trivia note before we get going: The voices were provided almost entirely by a cast of unknowns, but since then, at least one of them, Phil Lamarr, has gone on to achieve his own share of celebrity. He’s been a regular cast member on Mad TV, he’s the voice of Green Lantern on the current Justice League cartoon, and he’s provided voices for dozens of animated features. Oh, and he also got shot in the face by John Travolta in a certain 1994 movie I can’t remember the title of. So, I get to exploit the popularity of Mr. T and unearth a celebrity’s dirty little secret at the same time. All in all, a pretty good week for me.
The episode begins like every other episode of Mister T, with a teaser showcasing the highlights of the upcoming episode. This is supposed to be an action show, so the clips attempt to showcase the big action moments, but most of the time it doesn’t quite get there.
And while we’re watching clips from the show we’re about to see (spoiler-rama!), Mr. T voices over in his typical growl/yell: “Catch the action! Catch the mystery! On my show! The best show! Mister T!”
(Oh, and he’s not kidding about the “mystery” part. Out of the thirty produced episodes of this series, the word “Mystery” appears in the titles of twenty-three [!] of them. So already, you can sort of see this series wasn’t a creative highpoint for anyone involved.)
Anyway, for “Mystery of the Golden Medallion”, here are the introductory highlight clips:
A big semi truck with a generic red arrow logo goes over a pier and plunges into the ocean.
Mr. T runs up to some guy who was obviously just in a serious accident, because he’s sitting in a van with a totally warped body frame and a shattered windshield. So, does Mr. T see if the guy’s alright? Does he offer assistance? No, in fact, he just grabs the guy by the tie and lifts him in the air. However, the guy is wearing your stereotypical ’80s cop drama “bad guy/criminal/mobster” outfit, which consists of a gray suit, black shirt, and white tie, so we’re obviously supposed to infer that he is a member of the species goonus foiledagainus, and therefore, not deserving of medical treatment.
Next, we see two of Mr. T’s young gymnast friends jumping and landing on a huge round table. As in, King Arthur and the Knights of. Even though this is the premiere episode, we already know the characters are gymnasts, because of the white and blue star-spangled team jerseys they’re wearing.
Next, we see another young gymnast, a redheaded female, doing somersaults across a castle parapet, as another Goon Type runs away. So apparently, there’s a medieval theme to this episode, which is great, because when I think of Mr. T, I think of the Dark Ages.
Next, a bald goon, in this case a Turtleneck Variety Goon, runs through a corridor with a sword. Yep, just like most neutered children’s entertainment since the late ’70s, not even criminals carry guns in Mr. T’s animated world.
A shot of the redhead gymnast falling off someone’s shoulders and careening off the castle parapet.
Finally, we close with a shot of Mr. T in a body of water, and what he does next is so preposterous and insane that I can’t even describe it here, out of context, or your eyes would burst into flame and your brain would shrivel to the size of a raisin. But I’ll get to it soon enough. Trust me, it’s worth the buildup.
Since this is the first episode I’m recapping, I figure I might as well discuss the opening credits. In these credits, everything’s got the suitable gymnastic theme, even though not much actual gymnastics happens on the show, but anyway. We get shots of each of Mr. T’s young friends doing their thing, and I must say they’re really quite the Rainbow Coalition. In rapid succession we see: The redheaded girl! The black guy! The white guy with a haircut like Apollo from (the old) Battlestar Galactica! (Who looks like he’s stuffing his tights, which I shouldn’t even be talking about, but yet here I am.) Balance beams! Rings! Uneven bars! The Asian girl! (Whose arms grow considerably shorter in the space of a few frames.)
Then we get a shot of a younger redheaded boy, dressed almost exactly like Mr. T. That’s the joke here, unfortunately: The kid, despite being scrawny and white, wants to be just like Mr. T. He looks over and Mr. T is right there beside him, almost seeming to telepathically yell, “That’s the only way to dress! My way! The best way!” But there is a major difference between their outfits. Both Mr. T and the kid are wearing jean jackets with the sleeves cut off, of course, but whereas Mr. T doesn’t wear anything underneath his, Li’l Redhead has a T-shirt on. Because a little kid running around shirtless with just a jacket on would be sick and wrong. And if you think I’m going to take an obvious swipe at Michael Jackson here, you’re just sick and wrong. All those jokes were used up in the Moonwalker recap, anyway.
So. Mr. T glances down at his youthful doppelganger and the kid looks scared. But then Mr. T puts a hand on his shoulder and smiles, and all is right with the world. By the way, Mr. T has really, really bad teeth when he’s his animated version. They’re like, way too big and the gaps between them are wide enough to floss with shoelace. All in all, T kind of looks like an alcoholic drifter. I mean, even more so than in the real world.
Then we get a shot of a dog barking. Now, I knew there had to be a team mascot, because this is an ’80s cartoon. I mean, even the animated Fonz had Mr. Cool the dog. But the brilliant twist is that the dog has a Mohawk [!!] just like Mr. T. There’s no word on whether or not the dog is also paying tribute to his forefathers in the Mandinka tribe. I know I shouldn’t be giving stuff like this any serious thought, but… how exactly does a dog get a Mohawk in the first place, anyway? Doesn’t this imply the dog had a full head of hair that had to be shaved off? And also, is the dog rebelling against his parents?
Behind all this, there’s typical late-’70s, early-’80s action music, complete with funky guitars, an orchestra with lots of brass, and at random intervals, a chorus of singers cry “Awwwwwww, Mis-ter T!” And now we come to the part of the credits where there’s a montage of shots from upcoming episodes.
The redheaded girl leaps out of the way of two goons, who both land face-first on that big round table. Then we get a clip of Mr. T just nodding. The implicit message: Mr. T approves of violence!
We see the entire gang riding in their tour bus, which unfortunately never gets a cool name like the Mystery Machine, or whatever the animated Harlem Globetrotters called their bus. What’s up with that? We also see the bus driver, who might just be the cartoon version of Mrs. Kravitz from Bewitched. Oh, and a close-up on the windshield of the bus shows a Mexican kid sitting in there. I guess for some later episodes they had to meet their racial quotas, and bring in more characters of different ethnic persuasions, but the Mexican kid sure doesn’t appear in any of the episodes I’ve watched so far.
To close out the credits, there’s a scene where Mr. T and The Black Kid are on a swamp-tour type hover-boat, and a huge swinging log (don’t ask me) destroys the boat. They both fall in the water, and a crocodile simultaneously finds its way into the water. Now, if you know anything about this cartoon, you know what’s about to happen. But somehow, no matter how much advance knowledge you have, or how many times you watch this clip, it’s still just as unbelievable and hilarious as the first time you saw it.
What does Mr. T do when he sees the crocodile approach? Find a way to quickly make it back to dry land and drag his young friend with him? No, that wouldn’t be T enough. Instead, Mr. T swims directly at the croc, grabs it by the tail, and begins swinging it in a huge circle over his head [!!]. That’s just insane. That’s beyond insane. Did kids watching this understand that the real Mr. T isn’t this strong? Personally, I may not have figured that out until much later in life.
Anyway, more shots of upcoming episodes, including Redheaded Girl and Black Kid leaping and flying through a room that’s about as wide as a city block, judging by how long they stay airborne. But, man, nothing can compete with that crocodile clip. Wow. If you happen to watch this episode with a friend, don’t be surprised if you’re still talking about that crocodile clip twenty minutes later, and as a result you miss the whole rest of the episode. You won’t be missing much, believe me.