Adapted from the British Sky1 series of the same name, Amazon Studios’ new pilot Mad Dogs is an escapist crime drama with shades of dark comedy. The show follows a group of underachieving old friends reuniting at a beautiful Belizean beach villa to celebrate the early retirement of their friend Milo (Billy Zane). What begins as an exciting, tropical getaway takes a series of unexpected turns as the friends learn more about Milo’s shady business practices, and his not-so-idle “early retirement.”
As Mad Dogs begins we are introduced to this group of middle-aged men as one by one they make their way through passport control. Lex, played by Michael Imperioli (The Sopranos, Detroit 1-8-7), is the sober friend in recovery haunted by issues from his past. Gus is Romany Malco (The 40-Year-Old Virgin, Weeds), a divorced dad of two, and as the show acknowledges twice in just its pilot, the black one in the group. Steve Zahn (Sahara, Treme) does what he was born to do, play the goofball/screw-up friend (here, named Cobi), and Ben Chaplin (The Thin Red Line, Murder By Numbers) is the only one of the show’s stars who appeared in the original British series; however, he’s assumed a different part as the arguable lead of this Amazon pilot. His character Joel acts as the moral conscience for the group, arguing against strip club visits and extramarital exotic affairs.
Although the show makes attempts to differentiate this crew, the variances aren’t quite distinctive enough to give the Mad Dogs characters a sense of authenticity. The chemistry between the actors isn’t bad, but it’s not quite genuine. The script’s largely lackluster first 30 minutes does them no favor, either, as it features boilerplate banter of guys ragging on one another. The show’s smattering of comedy allows for levity in the more anxious scenes; yet, often (particularly before the pilot’s late tonal shift) the effect is groan-worthy, with cock jokes referring to chickens and a crack about being horny at the sight of a horned goat. Had the first half of Mad Dogs’ pilot not been so lacking in compelling material, instead of simply revisit the concept of friends reuniting to discover their differences, the uninspired comedy would hardly be noticeable. But, as the show reveals its true intentions, those dull jokes seem like a smaller issue.
Shortly over two-thirds of the way into the episode, Milo sits his guests down for a dinner in which tempers flare. The group has grown frustrated with his insinuations about their collective lack of success compared to his current lavish lifestyle, but they’re inclined to leave once Milo tricks the gang into helping him steal someone’s boat. The resulting dinner scene is by far Mad Dogs’ most gripping 11 minutes, turning a show about interpersonal relationships into a psychological thriller involving exposed secrets, third-world crime syndicates and police corruption. The type of show it become is much more engaging than the one Mad Dogs begins as, and the pilot might have benefitted from cutting down on its mostly unnecessary set up.
To reveal what transpires in the dinner scene would be to spoil some major plot points of Mad Dogs; however, suffice it to say that it’s the show’s most compelling and well-acted sequence. As the events turn this group’s vacation into the trip from hell, it becomes more interesting to place yourself within their context, trying to figure out how they’ll navigate their unfavorable circumstances.
The episode puts into place several future story threads, which makes it easy to imagine paths the show might embark upon, but some allusions to hidden affections and infidelity drama already sound tedious. Mad Dogs as a whole could have used polishing, particularly in its early world building, but among the slate of current Amazon pilots this is one of the most intriguing. In just its first episode, the show hints heavily at developing into an enthralling character study held in a picturesque locale. The pilot’s ending fails to land with the dramatic intensity it intends as a result of some awkward camera moves, but the mildly enjoyable first installment of Mad Dogs shows the potential to be fun, dramatic and engrossing.