Shawn Ryan must have a thing for hard-to-define TV shows whose titles involve dogs.
Ryan's brilliant-but-canceled FX drama Terriers suffered from an odd name and confusing billboards that didn't get at the heart of the show beneath the scruffy buddy private investigators premise. It was sadly canceled after one near-perfect season. And although Ryan's new drama Mad Dogs — which he produced for Amazon Prime with Chris Cole, who created the British series on which its based — isn't exactly the next Terriers, the show faces similar challenges.
The series tells the story of four friends — Lex (Michael Imperioli), Cobi (Steve Zahn), Gus (Romany Malco) and Joel (Ben Chaplin) — who travel to Belize to reunite with former pal Milo (Billy Zane). But just as the men begin to discover that their friendship isn't what it used to be, a shockingly violent murder by a man in a cat mask upends everything, and the friends find themselves searching for answers and trying to survive their innocent getaway-gone-terribly wrong.
While that sounds like an enjoyable enough premise to spend 10 hours on your couch with this weekend, the show's creative team can't help but point out that the show isn't exactly what you might expect going by its the poster or even the trailer. "I understand the appeal of selling the thriller aspect and the danger and all that," Ryan tells TVGuide.com. "But there is, we hope, a real deep, meaningful character piece underneath this with the fun, enjoyable trappings of all that other stuff. That's what's ultimately going to make or break this show. One of our mantras the whole time - and I'm about to reference a movie that I really loved - was 'We can't be The Hangover.' We had to be something that dug in a little bit more seriously."
What the show does take seriously, despite the life-or-death dramatic stakes and the four-fish-out-of-water comedic aspects, is the concept of male friendship. "It's not about not midlife crisis, but what happens at that point in your life where you suddenly realize that there's possibly more behind you than there is in front and you haven't achieved what you thought you might?" Cole says. "They obviously were friends historically back in the day, but they probably haven't seen each other that much over the last few years. And when they get together, I think they realize that they don't have as much in common as they thought they had. And then over the arc of the season, the deeper they get into trouble and the more desperate they become, the more they have to rely on each other. In fact, the discovery is that they are closer than they ever thought. It's almost an unconditional love for each other that they discover in an understated way."
It was that notion that first attracted Ryan to the project. "I think there's a lot to be said about [male friendship] and I don't think it's talked about a lot on TV," he says. "Friendship is a huge part of our lives and yet we tend to be focused on romantic relationships and business struggles or parenting choices and things like that. The idea of friendship is so interesting, especially how friendship morphs over the years. How deep is friendship? And what does it mean?"
Ascribing meaning to one's life is another huge theme of the show. When the guys reunite, all of them are projecting idealized versions of their lives to one another rather than being honest about the problems they left back at home, whether it's losing their kids, being in an unhappy marriage or watching their business fall apart. "Everyone's living a lie," Zane says. "Under duress, the truth in their station comes out. Adds Zahn: "We're all the same. The only difference is our pretense, what we choose for other people to think of us."
Those lies are quickly torn apart by Milo, who in a climactic moment in the pilot eviscerates his friends, who he has secretly brought to his villa in search of their help. "He's angry and let down and scared and so he has no choice but sort of rip into them because they haven't got his back," Coles says. Adds Ryan: "That's a huge disappointment to him. But he puts a big mirror in front of them... and that image from the mirror is still in those characters minds. It's very much a character examination. I wouldn't have made the show if it was just, 'Oh, this guy in a cat mask comes and shoots and now they're on the run.' The self-examination is really what made me want to do the show and what got me excited to show up at work every day."
As unexpected as the murder is in the pilot, the twists and turns that come as the friends try to figure a way out of Belize get even more bizarre. (Just check out the photo above.) And even though there is a constant sense of fear in the show, the circumstances eventually give way to humor.
"It has mad in the title," Cole jokes. "That's part of the mission statement of the show - it's a bit crazy. It's a crazy world. And if you travel to the third world, one of the interesting things about it is that things that are very normal to the people who live there. To people who have never been there before. Everything feels heightened and exaggerated and scary." Adds Ryan: "But these are not James Bonds in a jungle. They can't get sh-- done."
While each man is hopeless to overcome this ordeal alone, through the experience, the men just might find their way back to that friendship. "We're always trying to figure out what the f--- is going on... and how to get the hell out," Zahn says. "Some of that [anger at each other] goes by the wayside because they need each other for survival. I like the fact that as much as we have problems, we love each other. We have to have each other, otherwise we're going to die."
Adds Cole: "They're going to be changed forever, these guys. It's like soldiers - only those who have been through it can share the experience and know what you're talking about."
Mad Dogs' entire first season is now available to stream on Amazon Prime.