STORY WRITTEN BY ROB LOWMAN
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Just what makes something a comedy these days?
The new Amazon series “Mad Dogs,” based on a British series of the same name, has got more than its share of laughs, but it’s definitely very dark.
Chris Cole, who created the original series, describes the show as a “farce noir.” He and Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”) adapted it into an American version, expanding the series from four episodes to 10.
“It is a hybrid,” says Ryan. “There can be moments when the show can be funny. There are also moments of horror and absurdity. One of the things we have tried to do with the show is have moments that hold a variety of tones. So I’m glad if some people find humor in it, but it’s not a comedy, per se.
“Mad Dogs” is set in Belize where four 40-something friends — played by Ben Chaplin, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli and Steve Zahn — have been invited to vacation at an isolated estate by a mysterious, rich retired buddy named Milo (Billy Zane). Soon after they arrive, the group begins to bicker. They may not have been as close as they remember. Then events spiral off into craziness, involving drugs, mistaken identities and a weird cat-masked killer.
Ryan says it was important for the series, shot in Puerto Rico, to get “great actors to challenge each other” but also make it feel like they have been friends for 25 years. As it turns out, none of the cast had ever worked together before.
Zahn plays a financial wheeler-dealer who may not be as flush as he pretends. Chaplin is a high-school teacher hiding something, Malco a disgraced lawyer, and “Sopranos” veteran Imperioli a recovering alcoholic.
Interestingly, Chaplin played the Billy Zane character in the well-received British series.
“Watching Billy playing a character that I’d played and then I myself was playing a part that Phil Glenister played in the British one was bizarre,” says the actor.
With six more episodes, however, the Amazon series quickly veers off into new and unpredictable directions. “The first four episodes do bear a resemblance to the first four episodes in the British series,” says Ryan. “But once we get to episode 5 of the series, we’re in virgin territory. It’s completely different than the British series. And that was the reason why I wanted to do it, because it could become its own unique, original thing.”
“We were able to go a lot deeper into the characters than we were able to do in the original four hours,” adds Cole.
Also, the British Chaplin notes, “There’s an enormous difference between British and American men.”
Cole believes American men are more in touch with expressing how they feel. “They’ll verbalize that in a way British men won’t. We’ll look at each other silently for much longer.”
“What American man are you talking about right now?” Malco questions him.
But Ryan agrees with Cole. “I think resentments for a British man could be a little bit more buried. I think they surface a little bit quicker with American men. I don’t think there’s as much class distinction in American society.”
The showrunner says “Mad Dogs” is about “the uselessness of the American middle-aged man. American men are sort of raised as kids with this idea of American exceptionalism and the idea of the American dream.”
When the guys in “Mad Dogs” arrive in Belize, “They have had all sorts of crushing disappointments in their life,” adds Ryan.
But as audiences soon see, it isn’t long before they have to put that behind them in order to survive.
“Mad Dogs” is meant as a limited, self-contained series.
“This is its own story,” says Ryan. “It has a beginning, a middle and end. That doesn’t mean there couldn’t be a continuation of the series with some or all of the same characters.”
It’s interesting that Ryan alludes to “some or all of the characters,” because after watching a few episodes, I have no idea who gets out of Belize alive, but I do know there will be some laughs along the way.”