For those of a certain age and viewing habits, the closing logo for any Stephen J. Cannell-created series is instantly recognisable from numerous popular shows from the 1980s. Most prominently here in the UK after The A-Team, usually shown on an early Saturday evening. However, Cannell had a very busy career that spanned nearly 40 shows across three decades, often in the crime genre and not every show is as well known. Baa Baa Black Sheep, or Black Sheep Squadron as it was later called in syndication, was one of his earlier non-crime series from the ‘70s. Based (it seems extremely loosely) on the biography of the real pilot ‘Pappy’ Boyington, the series tells the tale of, according to the opening credits, a squadron of ‘misfits and screwballs’ fighting the Japanese Imperial forces in WWII.
Opening with a double length pilot episode, we meet Pappy in debt and running out of options. Forced to take up his old commission in the Marines, but facing bureaucracy and a dead-end desk job, Pappy engineers his way into collecting together a unit of other lost causes, hoping that being the best squadron in the South Pacific will be enough to keep them all out of the brig.
Once the situation is established we’re into story-of-the-week territory. Plots mainly follow one of three major templates: new visitors to the island somehow causes problems for the squadron, bureaucracy somehow causes problems for the squadron, or the more action-heavy episodes. As with television of the time, it’s not serialised (though it does frequently reference previous events and spend time on individual characters), with the A-story resolved by the end of each episode. It’s not concerned with realism or presenting an accurate representation of war or the men or experiences of the real Black Sheep squadron. Instead it’s firmly a war-as-adventure series, with a fair sprinkling of anti-authoritarian attitude stirred in (the M.A.S.H television series seems a likely influence, as it began airing a few years before Baa Baa Black Sheep).
Formulaic it might be, but it’s also entertaining stuff with likeable characters and plenty of aerial action. Pappy is played with huge charm by Robert Conrad, and the show is stacked with plenty of familiar faces, from Simon Oakland (Carl Kolchak’s always reliable editor), via guest stars like Sharon Gless, Charles Napier, George Takei, and even a couple of cameos from the real Greg Boyington. If you like classic war series or television of this period (if so bump up the rating below by another point), or you just fancy a well-made piece of easy going entertainment, it comes recommended.
BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP – THE COMPLETE SERIES / CERT: PG / CREATOR: STEPHEN J. CANNELL / STARRING: ROBERT CONRAD, SIMON OAKLAND, DANA ELCAR, SHARON GLESS, CHARLES NAPIER / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW