In the ninth episode of Mad Dogs' first season, a character falls down an unmarked sinkhole in the jungle. The character's friends then work to pull him out of said sinkhole, but the whole situation stands in, almost, as a metaphor for the new Amazon series' strengths and problems on the whole.
The rescue is, in and of itself, a surprisingly exciting and yet strangely weird sequence. It captures the sensation of being in some place you don't know and feeling very out of place. And it ultimately comes down to the camaraderie between the four men at the show's center. Those are all strengths.
But it also largely arrives out of nowhere, has no real bearing on the action, and is mostly just there to kill time before the guys get to their next checkpoint in the grand video game that has become their lives. It also feels like it was added simply because somebody somewhere read in a guidebook that Belize (the setting of the series) has sinkholes.
All of that, in a nutshell, is what makes Mad Dogs such a messy, captivating, hard-to-enjoy series. It tiptoes right up to the edge of greatness, then steps back, usually because it needs to cool its jets and kill time. But it's also made by very smart people, who are clearly wrestling with the new storytelling beast that is the American streaming series.
Thus, Mad Dogs is a great encapsulation of our present and of what TV's future might look like. Here's why.
Good: The story is often deeply compelling
Mad Dogs starts slowly but also very well. Four friends travel to Belize to visit a fifth friend none of them has seen in ages. Said fifth friend has made a fortune and spent it on a palatial jungle getaway, which the other guys are eager to see. Naturally, there are revisited resentments and arguments among the little group, and it seems this reunion wasn't such a great idea.
But it doesn't turn violent, at least not until the point when one member of the little quintet is shot dead by a person wearing a cat mask, drawing them even deeper into a web of crime, international intrigue, and terrible decision-making skills. So far, so good, especially since the cast is killer. These guys are played by Ben Chaplin, Michael Imperioli, Romany Malco, Steve Zahn, and Billy Zane, fun actors all, and they have a real chemistry that keeps things rolling along even when not everything makes sense.
For the show's first three episodes, it nicely hits the beats of a "wrong time, wrong place" story, where disaster is driven by the protagonists' bad luck and unfortunate coincidences. In this particular iteration of that age-old tale, our four survivors scramble to exonerate themselves of the murder of their friend — because who would believe the culprit was a mysterious man in a cat mask? — only for even more trouble to catch up to them.
Soon enough, the police are closing in on the four, and they're desperately attempting to stash a dead body in a freezer. Right around that point, Mad Dogs seems like it might be the next great streaming series, capturing the headlong pacing and gruesome weirdness of something like Breaking Bad and dumping it all in a jungle setting.
But then things go off the rails.
Bad: The "wrong time, wrong place" story isn't built for TV and leads to plot stalls
Right around episode four, the series starts to tilt off its axle. Mad Dogs was adapted by Cris Cole for American television, from his British series of the same name. And that British series' first season lasted only four episodes, which is perhaps why you can feel the strain of keeping this story going settle in after reaching episode four of the American version.
The entire middle section of this season is one big series of plot stalls, designed to keep us from getting to the point we know we must get to (where the guys face off with the evil drug dealer). An episode where the guys ride around Belize with an embassy worker played by Allison Tolman (Molly from season one of Fargo) is a hoot, but less interesting is an episode where they're quarantined for a potentially mutated version of smallpox, which takes a left turn into disaster movie for no real reason.
Every time the plot seems like it's getting on track again, it's pointlessly diverted in favor of more hijinks that are there to pad things out to reach the 10-episode season order. Somebody wanders into an active minefield. Another character falls in with a group of happy-go-lucky hippie types. Still another falls down that damn sinkhole.
The greatest problem with telling stories in the streaming model is that the form all but demands to tell one big story you consume over several hours. And because of TV economics, that big story will usually be somewhere between eight and 13 hours long.
But most of these stories don't need to be that long. There was enough story in Mad Dogs for maybe six episodes of television. (It's probably closer to four.) But the very structure of the show, in which one bad thing leads inexorably to another, precludes anything like a standalone episode, no matter how hard the writers try. (That quarantine hour, for instance, is more or less set aside from the plot, and it just feels weird.)
Some of this is due to streaming, sure, but some of it is also due to choosing to tell a "wrong place, wrong time" story on television. The "wrong place, wrong time" story necessarily robs the characters of their agency — they're only in danger because of bad luck — until they choose to do whatever it takes to get out of danger.
That works well in film and literature, where the story is finite. It works less well on television, where the show has to keep coming up with reasons the guys don't just hightail it out of Belize as soon as possible. Granted, it's at least somewhat creative at dreaming up those reasons, but there's a definite feeling of repetition that sets in during the season's midsection. That malaise only shakes off once the guys start taking arms against their troubles.
Good: This is still really talented people wrestling with how to tell stories in this format
The other brain behind Mad Dogs in addition to Cole is veteran showrunner Shawn Ryan, who created The Shield and has been responsible for a bunch of other fascinating TV shows. (He also shepherded the late, lamented Terriers to the small screen.)
This is one of the first streaming shows with a genuinely top-tier showrunner who's actually trying to embrace the Netflix and Amazon model of "one big story, told in many smaller chunks." (Most of the truly successful streaming shows, from Orange Is the New Black to Transparent, are far more episodic than something like this or Bloodline.)
If Ryan and Cole get lost here and there, it's not for lack of trying. They instantly diagnose some of the worst sins of other streaming shows — like how so many of those other series' individual episodes are often padded in and of themselves. The second episode of Mad Dogs is barely over 40 minutes, and it's the best one, with several others failing to crack the 50-minute mark. This means that even when the story isn't working, it at least remains propulsive.
But Ryan and Cole also grasp that every episode needs to have some sort of smaller goal for the characters to accomplish in order to leave us feeling satisfied. Not all of these goals make immediate sense (there's that quarantine episode again!), and some of them make it seem like God has cursed the characters. But it's a relief to enter an episode and know exactly what the characters have to do to get to the next stage in their journey.
Not everything in Mad Dogs works, but the presence of this structure makes me more confident that Ryan and Cole will figure out what they want to do in season two than I am with many streaming shows of similar quality.
Bad: The characters are … pretty nondescript
I realized somewhere in the next-to-last episode that I had never learned the character names of any of the guys on the show and was still thinking of them as the actors who played them. On the one hand, that's a testament to the talented cast assembled. On the other, it shows just how little Ryan and Cole have done to make the characters something other than "the guy who's more moral than the others" or "the loudmouth who talks his way out of things."
To be sure, the final two episodes of the season end up giving the things the characters do some heft, and there's a real sense that season two will play off of some of the decisions made in the last half-hour in really interesting ways. If all of this was setup for better character work down the line, it might eventually be forgivable.
But, man, I wanted something to hang on to other than, "That's Michael Imperioli doing things." I wanted these characters to be actual characters, and the show kept turning them into soccer balls for the plot to kick around endlessly. That's frustrating to watch as someone who would really love to connect with the show.
Weird: Just about everything else
By far the best reason to watch Mad Dogs is the way that it turns its version of Belize into a hallucinatory hellscape, all without unnecessarily demonizing the actual people of Belize (outside of maybe the ninth episode, which makes them all seem like criminals or crazy homeless people).
The jungle itself becomes a character. Goats are presented as an omen of death. There's an actual ghost woman who must be sexually satisfied. One character seems to slip off the very face of the earth. And then there are the aforementioned quarantine threats and sinkholes and minefields, all of which seem like they're on a day trip from another series and/or the Lonely Planet guidebook to Belize.
Mad Dogs, in other words, is trying something that's really complicated and ambitious, and failing as often as it's succeeding. But in my book, you get at least a few points for effort. It might not be great television, but at least it's not content to do the same thing everybody else is.
The first season of Mad Dogs is streaming on Amazon Prime.