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‘Mad Dogs’ Review: ‘The Shield’ Creator’s Amazon Series Has Bark, Needs Bite

Shawn Ryan’s new show is part dark comedy, part drama

If “The Hangover Part II” was a TV show, would you watch it? Amazon Studio’s new dark dramedy “Mad Dogs” delivers us four men who excel in their ineptitude, all thrust into an international drug trafficking incident while on vacation in Belize. When every move they make is a bad one, pleasure must be derived from their panic.

And that’s not so unreasonable a request, since this is an action comedy, with all of your favorite second stringers from rom-coms of the early aughts. Steve Zahn, Romany Malco, Michael Imperioli and Billy Crudup make up the crew of old friends, who’ve arrived at the mansion of the fifth member of their group, the mysteriously successful Milo (Billy Zane), for a debauched weekend of camaraderie.

In the first episode, it’s as if creator and executive producer Shawn Ryan — the man behind “The Shield” — has set us up for the kind of self-indulgent horror show that was the premise of the abysmal 2011 film “I Melt With You,” because here again we meet aging, middle class men who find that their disappointments in themselves and their resentments against each other cast a pall over the spree of drugs and sex.

The darkness does arrive in “Mad Dogs” but it’s in the form of a little person wearing a giant plastic cat head and bearing a gun.

It’s that strange cinematic turn that makes this show worth investigating. Now that digital streaming services are breaking through the established norms of network and cable television programming, the premise of “Mad Dogs” sounds like a reboot of “Weekend at Bernie’s,” not the start of television show, one that creators would likely hope to make for more than one season. Like the web itself, so much about online streaming is elastic and changeable, and it allows the creators to play around with every rule regarding format.

Freed of the obligation to be a reliable source of laughs each week, and specially designed for binge-viewing, the show’s only predictable element is bickering that goes on between the friends: When this cat-headed man threatens their lives, the lead characters devolve into an infantile game of finger-pointing and pushing each other’s buttons. Though some comedy is wrung out of the petty fights between the four, it gets tiresome. The drug lords sound more interesting.

It’s frustrating to watch these four men fumble every opportunity to straighten out the mess they descend ever deeper into. Sure it can be fun to scream “DON’T GO IN THERE YOU IDIOT” as a character walks down that dark hallway in a horror film, but five episodes into this drama, I don’t want to be so confident the leading men will cock it up at every turn.

As in life, the fights between these friends showcase the worst parts of each of them. Perhaps it’s a testament to the verisimilitude of the writing that the writers have successfully convinced us these characters are a bunch of dicks. Romany Malco and Steve Zahn are most successful at wringing some likability out of their characters’ priggish behavior — and they’re the worst behaved.

But it’s worth giving “Mad Dogs” a chance to prove itself to the end of season one. If the action ramps up and the bickering dies down, these dogs could have a few more miles in them.