Hypothetical: Let’s say you’re a middle-aged-ish man. Let’s say your life hasn’t worked out quite the way you expected it to, especially recently. Let’s say you and three of your oldest friends get an all-expenses paid trip to Belize courtesy of your fourth friend, who has accumulated a great deal of wealth through an unclear vocation, and lives in a luxurious mansion cut into the jungle, and looks an awful lot like noted Hollywood actor Billy Zane. Let’s say this rich friend acts really strange while you’re down there, picking fights and being unnecessarily antagonistic, and having hushed conversations with shady-looking dudes. Let’s say he kind of steals a boat. And then, let’s say, while you’re all eating dinner one night, you notice something behind him, and…
You know what? I’m actually going to stop the hypothetical there. To go any further would spoil the fun of the first episode of Amazon’s latest streaming series, Mad Dogs. I would never want to be accused of spoiling anyone’s fun. You can watch it for yourself and then get back to me on your reaction.
If some of this sounds familiar to you, there’s a good reason for that. Actually, there’s two good reasons. The first is that Mad Dogs was part of Amazon’s “pilot season” back in early 2015, where the site’s Prime members can watch a group of pilot episodes and provide feedback, with the winners then getting greenlit for full seasons. (Mad Dogs came from the same pilot season as Amazon’s biggest recent hit, The Man in the High Castle.) So, you might have actually watched, or heard about, all of this more than a year ago.
The second reason it might sound familiar is that Mad Dogs was a British series first, and this is the American version of that show. And for anyone who loved the original and worried about this being a bollocks Yankee wanker bastardization, there’s some good news: The creator of the original version, Cris Cole, is back to create and produce, and he’s teaming up with Shawn Ryan, creator and executive producer of The Shield and executive producer of my beloved, short-lived Terriers. This is an excellent starting point.
As for the show itself, here’s your basic rundown: The hypothetical I laid out in the first paragraph is the set-up. The four friends who travel to Belize are Joel (Ben Chaplin), Lex (Michael Imperioli), Gus (Romany Malco), and Cobi (Steve Zahn), and their mysterious wealthy friend who looks like Hollywood actor Billy Zane is Milo (Billy Zane). Again, without tipping off exactly what happens at the end of the first episode, their relaxing, carefree vacation in Belize takes a hard, tires-screeching left turn, and they find themselves running from drug lords and the police in paradise, and trying not to kill each other. It’s kind of like the four-part Saved by the Bell TV movie Hawaiian Style. But darker. And with more murder. And about grown men trying to deal with violent drug dealers to save their lives instead of high school students dealing with shady lawyers to save a quaint hotel owned by Kelly Kapowski’s grandfather.
On second thought, Mad Dogs is not like Saved by the Bell: Hawaiian Style at all, really. Forget I said anything.
The best parts of the series are the performances and dialogue. Romany Malco, most recognizable from The 40-Year-Old Virgin, stands out among the cast as a frazzled suburban dad who has had all this thrust upon him. Steve Zahn is at his most Steve Zahn. And there are really nice little moments when the former/current friends have a minute to sit down and reflect on both the way the situation at hand is unfolding and the way their lives haven’t panned out as they expected. (In general, I mean. Before the trip. Not “I didn’t expect to be fending off drug dealers in Belize.” Although I suppose that’s true, too.) The whole thing plays out like a darkly comic group midlife crisis taken to the extreme.
Where it struggles, however, is in episodes that immediately follow the pilot. Maybe it was a product of me binge-watching my screeners in two sittings, but it felt like the task of stretching it to ten episodes left it really thin in some parts. It kind of falls into a “Try to fix a problem –> Create new problem –> Characters argue with each other” rut. But again, that might work out differently for you if you space the episodes out a bit.
All-in-all, Mad Dogs is a decent series that struggles a bit after a great start, and I can’t believe I made it all the way to the end of this without spoiling the end of the first episode.