From Transparent to The Man in the High Castle, Amazon’s original series so far have demonstrated an almost uncanny appreciation for binge-viewing, with episodes flowing together more like a movie that happens to be split into parts than a TV show. Mad Dogs, a remake of a Sky TV series of the same name, might be expected to differ from that pattern – but if anything, it’s the most addictive of the lot.
The show’s scenario is broadly unchanged: four old friends travel to Belize to visit a fifth member of their gang, who is about to retire. Billy Zane plays Milo, the rich local resident, who seems to spend his days lounging by a swimming pool. He’s confident. He’s imposing. He’s clad in a thin, white shirt. He’s Billy Zane. The others, naturally, are both jealous and suspicious – a combination that can only lead to bad things. But it turns out that their divisions go deeper than that, as old secrets are unearthed.
If the words “Billy Zane” are all you need to tune in to a series, be warned that the Titanic star has more of a cameo than a recurring role – he’s mainly there as the bald, hot, Billy Zane-shaped catalyst that brings the rest of the cast together. But Amazon has another two words up its sleeve: Shawn Ryan. The Shield’s showrunner has helped pen this first season along with Cris Cole, the writer of the original. Together, they craft a holiday-from-hell nightmare that proves surprisingly gripping.
It helps that the cast are all up for it as the varyingly divorced and single bunch, from Romany Malco as failure-of-the-group Gus and Michael Imperioli as Lex to Ben Chaplin as Joel. Steve Zahn is the stand-out, though, as the married Cobi, who wastes no time getting off with one of the (extremely loud in bed) locals. Zahn has always been likeable, even in films such as Diary of a Wimpy Kid, so it’s nice to see him play something of a douche – although, in fact, none of the main ensemble are heroes, as we learn things about their past, from possible infidelities to legal entanglements.
It’s a familiar, and functional, enough set-up to allow Cole and Ryan to nudge our sympathies around the room, giving each actor a chance to be both nice and nasty. Milo’s back-story, though, is the one that throws events in motion, as a guy in a cat mask (the enjoyably acerbic Mark Povinelli), a gun and a local gangster (played by the always-brilliant Phil Davis) all pop up.
Rachael Holmes steals scenes from the lot of them as a ruthless local policeman investigating a missing boat full of drugs. She alternates between funny and threatening – offering a welcome contrast to the laddish banter that dominates the blokes’ exchanges. If it’s a shame that her subplot is swiftly brushed aside to make room for another, though, that’s also the secret to Mad Dogs’ appeal: speed.
Director Charles McDougall shoots the antics with sassy style, flinging his camera around in swoops and arcs to keep things dynamic, while the beautiful backdrop gives the programme a polished flair. That peppy pace combines with the cliffhanger-stuffed script to create something compulsively entertaining: things go wrong, then they keep getting worse, a cycle of constantly raised stakes that makes binge-viewing almost unavoidable. The man-child chaos becomes increasingly ludicrous, as dead-ends begin to feel predictably contrived – passports are forgotten, offices are closed and hostages escape – but the tension remains; it’s only when you have to stop to go to the toilet, or your tablet runs out of battery, that you realise how daft the whole thing is.
The show’s not afraid to slow down, though; some episodes clock in way below the hour mark just to keep things taut, while others pause the conveyor belt to let these four men vent both internal and external conflicts. One sequence where they record video messages for their families back in the US turns the shallow differences between their monologues into subtle character beats. Another finds them exposed as the bickering sexists they are by Fargo’s Allison Tolman as a charming US Embassy employee.
The result is far from the prestigious quality of Transparent and The Man in the High Castle, but that’s not what Amazon is aiming for: Mad Dogs is a shot of adrenaline, the kind of trashy telly you can sit down to on a Friday night, when nuanced family drama or provocative parallel Nazi worlds just won’t do. Daring you to click “Next Episode” without any shame, it fills an important part of any TV network’s library: Mad Dogs is not remarkable, but it is remarkably watchable. You wonder whether the formula of escalating nightmares can maintain that momentum in the future, but Sky’s original ran for four seasons. Judging by the opening half of this one, you’d zip through them in no time.
All episodes of Mad Dogs Season 1 are released exclusively on Amazon Prime Video on Friday 22nd January, as part of £5.99 monthly subscription.