A reunion in Belize among five friends quickly goes south in Mad Dogs, Shawn Ryan and Cris Cole’s newest series based on Cole’s original British drama of the same name. The gorgeous expanse of Belize and Milo’s (Billy Zane) palatial estate give way to grand theft (naval) auto, dirty cops, and a hitman running around in a cat mask.
Looks like relaxing by the pool for the next few days is out of the question — especially when someone throws a dead goat into the water.
From its first episode, Mad Dogs is replete with similar twists as a vacation from hell descends upon four American men — Joel (Ben Chaplin, who took Zane’s spot in the British version), Lex (Michael Imperioli), Gus (Romany Malco), and Cobi (Steve Zahn). What should have been a relaxing stay in an exotic land transforms into a mad dash for survival, and initially that darkly comic tale works thanks to the strength of the four main performances.
But those first moments give way to a formulaic affair, as the four Americans find themselves embroiled in one life-or-death situation after another, only to escape into temporary safety before the next roadblock impedes their progress. The moments meant to shock gradually become expected beats along the way, and far from being a strength, they end up feeling like necessities to keep those binging strung along for at least one more episode.
As Mad Dogs propels forward, it actually is most compelling in its slower moments, when Joel, Lex, Gus, and Cobi address their strenuous pasts with one another and what that means for their current situation. Chaplin brings an impressively quiet rage to Joel. Malco, normally a comedic strength, excels as a family man torn from his kids. Imperioli balances Lex’s desire to be the conscience of the group with his acceptance of the terrible situation they’re in. And Zahn adds layers of despicability to Cobi, who, for all the surprise that dissipates from the show, never fails to shock in how selfish he can be.
Watching this testosterone-fueled group tackle their more tender sides remains so compelling because of the four central actors’ commitment to their parts. Their relationships with one another feel real and lived-in, even when paired with their more ludicrous actions. The show suffers when it pulls them apart for too long, but thankfully, through better, worse, and the horrid, they’re often stuck with one another.
Outside of Joel, Lex, Gus, and Cobi, Mad Dogs does little to build out its world with meaningfully complex characters. There are some fun turns from the supporting cast, including Mark Povinelli’s cat-mask-wearing assassin and Coby Bell’s Aaron, but these foils never rise to the intriguing levels of the protagonists. Even more disappointing is the show’s treatment of its female characters. There aren’t many to begin with, but a surprising number of the show’s women feel othered, defined by their sexuality, their usefulness in aiding the men, or their native Belizean nature. The show feels at times aware of this imbalance and the outright misogyny some of its main characters display — a particularly key turn by the great Allison Tolman is integral to demonstrating the show isn’t unaware of its gender politics. But the disrespect shown to women goes beyond the narrative level and functions at an overarching series level.
Mad Dogs being situated in a man’s world isn’t inherently the problem, especially when the men at the core of it are so fascinating to watch despite how despicable they can become in their desperation. But the general treatment of the show’s women, along with the show’s depiction of the natives of Belize, is never fully acknowledged in a satisfactory enough way to excuse it. Mad Dogs has no issue depicting the sheer beauty of the country, but it struggles to do the same for its people, their destitution often taking precedence over their humanity.
And much of Mad Dogs is preoccupied with tracing the waxing and waning humanity of its central characters, which makes the poor treatment of those around them all the more noticeable. It can make binging Amazon’s latest a problematic affair at times, when such key components are working thanks to the main performances and the strong writing that develops these central characters. Everything around them becomes much more hit-or-miss, though, and if the core four don’t grab you, the pacing problems and predictable wheel-spinning as the show progresses won’t help. The madness of Mad Dogs‘ main characters proves to be enticing hook — it’s just a shame how maddening the show’s other aspects can be along the way. B–