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Great Cast, Sharp Writing Carry Amazon’s “Mad Dogs”

Shawn Ryan, the creator of “The Shield,” returns to TV with the launch of Amazon’s remake of the British hit “Mad Dogs,” premiering in its entirety on the streaming service this Friday, January 22nd. Starring Ben Chaplin, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli and Steve Zahn, this dark series centers on the friendship of four men tested when their lives are put in jeopardy after a shocking trip to Belize. Ryan’s writing, collaborating with Cris Cole, is typically razor-sharp, but the real draw here is the cast, all of whom find ways to stand out in a show that’s very plot-driven. Neither do they blend together into one character nor feel like they’re trying too hard when they get their chance in the spotlight. And that subtle dynamic is really why the show works—we believe these four guys enough to make their predicament resonate. It’s also one of those shows that’s great for binge viewing because each episode builds on the one that came before. Yes, here’s another weekend that I expect will be dominated by binge viewing. We better get used to that in 2016.

Four friends travel to Belize to help their old buddy Milo (Billy Zane) celebrate his early retirement. Milo is clearly a shark, the kind of alpha male who has stepped on a number of people to find his level of success, and has probably even stepped on these four former pals at one point or another. But it’s just a weekend. Get the guys back together. Have a few drinks. Hit a few clubs. What could possibly go wrong?

The four guys are the conservative Joel (Ben Chaplin), who seems least entertained by Milo’s opulence; somewhat insecure Lex (Michael Imperioli); the outgoing, possibly to a fault, Cobi (Steve Zahn); and the struggling but smiling Gus (Romany Malco). The five guys are confused as to how Milo suddenly became rich enough to have four miles of private beach—something about a real estate deal is mentioned but it seems sketchy—but they decide to let it go, have a few drinks, party in a club, and one of them even brings a local back to the estate. But there’s something wrong. Milo is clearly on edge, and there’s a threat in the air. When they find a dead goat in the pool the next morning, it’s clear Milo has some enemies. And stealing his enemy’s boat and leaving it in a marsh? Probably not the best response. When things get really violent, our quartet gets stuck in Belize, unable to leave as cops, both corrupt and not, close in on them.

“Mad Dogs” works because its cast connects with the anxiety and tension of the situation in ways that don’t feel forced. Chaplin (who played the Milo role in the British original, which ran for four seasons) is effectively subtle, the kind of guy who’s more likely to be silent and assessing a situation than panicking. Zahn and Malco are more outwardly responsive to the drama happening around them but neither are cartoonish or slapstick. Ryan and Cole deserve credit for the way they ground behavior that might otherwise demand high suspension of disbelief in their characters, trusting their actors to deliver the realism. It’s also great to see Imperioli do his best work since “The Sopranos.”

Inherently, “Mad Dogs” is one of those one-step-forward/one-step-back shows and that kind of structure can get exhausting. Every time it looks like the guys will get out of their deadly situation, they face a setback. Every time they figure out their way past one obstacle, another is placed in front of them. Any show like that can start to feel repetitive, but “Mad Dogs” builds instead of merely treading water, increasing in momentum, which is exactly the right kind of show for binge viewing. Although with the increased presence of Netflix, Hulu and Amazon in the Original Programming world, it’s starting to feel like every kind of show is right for binge viewing.

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