Six episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
Premiering this Friday, Amazon’s sunny, sinister and often outrageously funny new crime comedy Mad Dogs drops you in the middle of a never-ending “Choose Your Own Misadventure” story. By page 30, you’re lost in a foreign city, desperately looking for somewhere to stash your rental car. You can’t use your phone to help you because your idiot friend threw it away – he thought it was being tracked (it wasn’t…right?). If the car’s not safely hidden, someone might notice that it contains $5 million in stolen drug money, which you’re trying to return to a notorious crime lord before he kills you. Of course, he might just kill you anyway, because your other idiot friend (he’s dead now) left the gangster’s yacht somewhere in the Caribbean. It’s a long story.
Initially faithful to the original British series it’s based on before charting its own course, Mad Dogs makes a winning little mongrel out of many familiar influences. The setup could go either way as horror or comedy: four old college buds, now well into their unsatisfied 40s, reunite in Belize for a week of partying and catching-up at another friend’s luxurious villa. The host, Milo (Billy Zane), is the odd man out of the college crew, given what a mysterious success he’s made of himself. Between Joel (Ben Chaplin, who played the Milo equivalent in the British series) the estranged father, Lex (Michael Imperioli) the recovering addict, Gus (Romany Malco) the recently divorced dad, and Cobi (Steve Zahn) the wayward husband, there’s as much fond history between the boys as there is mutual resentment.
But the gang soon finds itself with bigger fish to fry than old grudges and bruised egos –the first episode (available since last year’s crop of Amazon pilots) is well from over before Milo’s unceremonious death traps these four over the hill and out of their depth guys in a conspiracy of corrupt officials, Dutch drug smugglers and one very tiny, very angry assassin. It’s a premise that, as a movie, would lend itself as easily to a You’re Next or The Descent-style bloodbath of personal drama as it would to a Coen-esque caper of ineptitude. As a season of television, however, Mad Dogs has the much more difficult task of keeping a volatile story engaging and believable for at least 10 episodes.
Luckily, the American adaptation has original series-creator Cris Cole in charge of updating his own blueprint. Helping shepherd the remake is executive producer and The Shield showrunner Shawn Ryan, one of the very best writers of drawn-out crisis management. Throw in a strong cast at the foreground of some gorgeous location shooting (Puerto Rico plays Belize), and you’ve got a series that has a lot going for it right off the bat.
In terms of comparable television, it’s easy to think of Mad Dogs as of a piece with the blackly comic first seasons of Breaking Bad and Fargo, just with 9,000 square miles of tropical jungle on display instead of the Albuquerque desert or Minnesota ice. The show’s emotional territory is far less novel: middle-aged guys grappling with their mortality in ways both immediate and pedestrian has been common TV fodder for more than a decade now. While Mad Dogs doesn’t quite have the precision plotting or bravado of the above-mentioned shows, what helps separate it from the pack is its willingness to be the first to laugh at its characters.