Puerto Rico, standing in for Belize, looks amazingly bright and sunny in Amazon’s manic, unpredictable, and compelling new series “Mad Dogs.” The long green grass has a neon quality, and in the night scenes, in the moonlight, the gently rippling water looks seductive. The cinematographer is clearly in love with the place. But this is no happy travelogue, and — given the high level of local menace and corruption portrayed on the show — the Belize tourism groups are probably going to hate it.
This paradise will be lost, suddenly and brutally, and so will the vestiges of youth that the show’s middle-age characters are clinging to. In “Mad Dogs,” things go from bad to worse, and then a few more steps from worse to worst, a little like they did in “Fargo,” as the fall of one calamity knocked the next one down like a set of dominos. Actually, the show, whose first season is available on Friday, reminds me most of all of “Deliverance,” where men naively head straight into the heart of darkness. “Mad Dogs” is about the myths of masculinity, as they fall apart and men are forced to become simply human.
The show begins with a group of five longtime friends reuniting after many years at the lush Belize villa of the wealthy one, Milo (Billy Zane). They’re on vacation, and trying to recapture some of their old banter. The cast is top-notch, with Michael Imperioli, Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, and Ben Chaplin acting like a bunch of fun-loving dudes having their male-only “Big Chill” moment — but then also bringing a palpable undercurrent of tension and competition that gradually rises to the surface. Early on, Milo, who is dodgy about how he has made his money, tells the group that if something happens to him they’ll inherit the villa; from that moment on, the men’s ears and hackles and suspicions all perk up.
The show is co-produced by Shawn Ryan of “The Shield” and the short-lived “Terriers,” and it’s based on fellow co-producer Cris Cole’s UK series of the same title. It moves along at a thriller’s pace, as the men’s troubles accumulate, and there are a lot of satisfying plot turns, blackly comic moments, and guest appearances along the way. These guys don’t always make sensible decisions, just like the innocents in “Fargo,” whose blamelessness became increasingly compromised as they tried to get out of a giant pickle. But I don’t think “Mad Dogs” is asking us to make complex moral judgments about the characters. They are dealing with their mortality, both literally and psychologically, as the series unfolds. The question that lurks behind the drama is: Will they, can they, help one another out?
Starring Michael Imperioli,
Steve Zahn, Ben Chaplin,
Romany Malco, Billy Zane
On Amazon, streaming FridayMatthew Gilbert can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @MatthewGilbert.