Sometimes TV execs have no idea what they're talking about. That's no surprise to me.
Last month in Los Angeles at the TV critics press tour, a top man at Amazon Prime introduced the creators of Mad Dogs by saying, "Together, they've created a delicious blue-skies adventure to take all of our Amazon Prime customers away from the winter doldrums."
Whoa. Admittedly Amazon is relatively new to the TV racket and, admittedly, they give the creators a lot of freedom. But, still.
You see, Mad Dogs (streaming on Shomi, starts Friday) is not an escapist, fun, "blue skies" drama. It's a twisted, nervy, and at times, explosive exploration of middle-aged male regret and rage. It is also one of those dramas that exists entirely on two levels. On the surface there's a gripping, contorted thriller with many spellbinding plot twists. Beneath that, there's mordant commentary about very large geopolitical issues going on. It's rather brilliantly pulled off.
The gist is this – four American men, all in their 40s, with some gone to seed, travel to Belize to visit a wealthy college friend, Milo (Billy Zane). He's invited them to come and relax, party-it-up at his grand, lavish villa by the sea. None of them are certain how he made his money but they want to witness his success. Besides, they're the sort of guys who need an adventure break – there's the seemingly prudent financial planner Cobi (Steve Zahn), the mercurial Lex (Michael Imperioli), the stable, happily married Gus (Romany Malco) and the morose Joel (Ben Chaplin).
As soon as they arrive in Belize there's an edge to their experience. Some have Googled "Belize" and others assume it's some Caribbean resort they've landed in. Milo is rich so, obviously, everything will be fun.
It doesn't take long before they realize Milo is rich because he's playing some dangerous criminal game. Drugs, probably. And as they arrive a nasty feud with a local drug baron is heating up. There's something very sinister going on, but these guys are out of their depth. They mistake the sun, sand and simple life of the locals for something benign.
Within hours, it seems, they are involved in a deadly game involving a stolen luxury yacht, a vast cache of drugs, money and guns. Also they have numerous deadly enemies. At first the circumstance inspires these guys to find strength and resourcefulness. Then the bonds of friendship begin to unravel and they are at war with each other, bickering and raising old issues from the past.
Meanwhile, they eventually realize that what they see around them cannot be taken at face value. A friend is foe on one day and, by necessity, a friend again on another day. And what the locals want, really, is money. Always money.
For much of the time Mad Dogs is an all-male drama, bristling with male angst. But the maleness is put into perspective by the arrival of two women in the knotted plot. A local police officer – mistaken for Milo's cleaning lady at first – commands them to tell the truth about what's going on, but she doesn't have much luck. Her view of American men is succinct – "American men, you love to fight," she sighs with exasperation. And then, well, you might say she falls victim to what she observes.
A few episodes in, the men make contact with the U.S. embassy in Belize. Their contact there is a woman (wonderfully played by Allison Tolman from the first season of Fargo) who offers them no choice but to be in her care. And then, things take another very sinister twist.
It's a sterling drama, this one. There is a darkly comic aspect to the ceaseless series of disasters that befall these men. But look below the holiday-in-hell plot and you'll see that Mad Dogs is also about American foreign policy and the U.S. view of the world. These guys, like their country, have no interest in local subtleties and inevitably fail to finesse any situation. They believe their male energy and brawn will get them through any disaster. They are, more often than not, clueless.
Mad Dogs is based on a British series of the same title. In that drama, four middle-aged men visit an old friend in Spain and get stuck in a complex criminal enterprise. The U.S. version is adapted by Shawn Ryan, who created The Shield. Cris Cole, who wrote the original, is also involved. Ryan saw the opportunity to take the plot and expand it, drilling deeper into the theme of male acrimony and making the subtext of wayward foreign policy a bit more muted. In the original version a key figure, who is mostly disguised, wore a Tony Blair mask.
There's a lot of testosterone in Mad Dogs, as there is meant to be. And a lot of droll understated criticism of First World ignorance about the rest of the world. It's way, way smarter than a "delicious blue-skies adventure." Totally recommended.