The premise of Mad Dogs, the latest product off of Amazon’s pilot-voting-series pipeline, reads like a joke setup: a teacher, a burnout, a disgraced lawyer, and a finance bro walk into a mansion in Belize; you’ll never guess what happens next! Which is our first clue that despite its length (an hour) and level of violence (high), Mad Dogs is still a comedy, and works best when it leans in to the laughs.
It’s a canny move by creator Cris Cole, adapting his own series for American audiences after running it for four seasons in the UK, and producer Shawn Ryan, late of definitely-not-a-comedy The Shield. As critics from Maureen Ryan to James Poniewozik have said, streaming services haven’t quite been able to make their strategy of season over episode, and length over efficiency, work for a full-blown drama yet; where comedies like Transparent or BoJack Horseman feel liberated from act breaks and free to explore longer-term stories, dramas in the vein of Bloodline feel bogged down and overindulged.
Some of those weaknesses are immediately evident in Mad Dogs. The pilot, and some subsequent episodes, clocks in at a punishing and unnecessary 58 minutes, yet another series too high on the freedom of television’s still-wild West to realize that, cliché though it is, less really is sometimes more. As for the plot, it’s a linear sprint from the group’s arrival in Belize to the flash-forward, set four days later, that begins the series, fueled by mishaps that snowball and escalate rather than confine themselves to a single episode. It’s good for dramatic momentum, but bad for viewers without the inclination — or, given the subject matter, the stress management skills — to go for eight hours straight.
But thanks to its characters and the commitment of the actors who play them, Mad Dogs works, particularly as a study of the pettiness and indignities of recently achieved middle age. The central foursome have come to Central America to visit their longtime and suspiciously wealthy friend Milo (Billy Zane), whose beachfront mansion comes with a pool, a full bar, and more ominously, zero cell service. Each has their own qualifications for the title of “sad sack”: teacher Joel (Ben Chaplin) is a straitlaced prude who refuses to cede the moral high ground; ex-lawyer Gus (Romany Malco) is professionally exiled and recently divorced; financial analyst Cobi (Steve Zahn) is an irritating twerp who wastes no time cheating on his wife; and jobless Lex (Michael Imperioli) has simply failed to launch.
Unsurprisingly, things quickly escalate, with Milo relentlessly stirring the pot until everyone’s resentments come to a boil. Joel is still hung up on Cobi’s wife! Gus once sabotaged Lex’s almost-big-break! Milo himself is not so much a character as a cipher-cum-plot-device, making it less than surprising when — spoiler, except not really, because Mad Dogs’ pilot has been public for a full year — he’s dispatched in spectacular fashion after he’s put in the requisite amount of bullying and erratic behavior.
After Milo’s death, at the hands of the little person in a cat mask who fronts all the series’ promo art, Mad Dogs quickly devolves into a crime caper of four pathetic dudes in over their heads. With the Belizean police and a drug lord named Jesus as their very own Scylla and Charybdis, the foursome has to dispose of Milo’s body, return the boat he stole from Jesus, and generally clean up the mess he left them without running afoul of the law. As four whiny, selfish dudes even less qualified to work together than to deal with violent criminals, they don’t do a very good job.
Consequently, Mad Dogs is an extremely stressful show — more stressful, frankly, than it sometimes feels worth. But its pressure cooker situations often give rise to sublime comic crescendos, which generally involve inappropriately timed temper tantrums and entirely-appropriate-but-still-poorly-timed freakouts. All four actors, but especially Zahn, aren’t afraid to let these characters’ worst selves bubble to the surface until their problems are less fallen into than self-inflicted.
Whether one’s amusement proves fuel enough to power through all ten hours of Mad Dogs’ first season will vary from viewer to viewer; though there are high points, this show has neither the lightness nor the allegro pacing that make Amazon’s equally uneven Mozart in the Jungle such an easy binge. Mad Dogs is a major commitment, one that those who like their comedy in shades other than pitch black may not be willing to make.
Mad Dogs is available to stream on Amazon beginning Friday, January 22.