(Photo by Mark Davis / Getty Images)
Ever since he created The Shield, any new Shawn Ryan show has been something to watch for. Even some of his short-lived shows like Terriers and The Chicago Code were great. Now he’s got a new series for Amazon, Mad Dogs, based on the British series by Cris Cole, who also created and produced the American version.
Joel (Ben Chaplin), Lex (Michael Imperioli), Gus (Romany Malco) and Cobi (Steve Zahn) go visit their old friend Milo (Billy Zane) at his lavish estate in Belize. They enjoy a little luxury and debauchery but it also provokes old feuds and judgements about all their mistakes. When a local crime element gets involved, the kettle boils over, and all that’s just in the pilot episode that premiered on Amazon Pilot season. We sat down with Ryan to discuss Mad Dogs and a few of his past and upcoming projects after Amazon’s presentation to the Television Critics Association.
Fred Topel for Rotten Tomatoes: How did I not hear about Mad Dogs the first time?
Shawn Ryan: Listen, I didn’t hear of it at the time when it came out. I think it was at the beginning of Twitter. Now it feels like we’re so connected with all aspects of the world that if something cool is happening somewhere, it feels like we’ll hear about it. In that case, I had to be told by my creative partner, Marney Hochman, “Hey, here’s something you should check out.” First thing I did was I read the pilot script and then I was like, “Oh, I’d like to see how they realized this.” Then I watched the first four episodes of that series and just got blown away by how different it was, how unique. It was unlike anything I’d seen. It had a different rhythm. It really vacillated between different tones. You were never quite sure exactly where you were and how to feel, which, as a viewer, I liked. It was kind of the opposite of comfort food. It just really appealed to me, so the first thing I said was, “I just want to meet that writer and work with him.” I didn’t know it would eventually lead to an American version of the show.
Rotten Tomatoes: Was it his idea to do that?
Ryan: It was actually Sony’s idea, because he and I were talking about doing a different idea. We were developing a brand new show when Sony, who’s my employer, bought Left Bank, which was the production company that made Mad Dogs in the U.K. Suddenly Sony had the rights to this and they knew it was an asset and they said, “Hey, we just got the rights to this. You already know Cris. You’re already working with Cris. Would you be interested in doing the American version of the show?” The first thing I said was, “Hey, they’re talking to me about doing the American version. I gotta tell you, the British version’s pretty fantastic. Is there a logic? Is there a rationale for doing the American version?” He thought about it and he said, “Yeah, I think there is. There are a lot of things that I wish I could’ve done differently in the British version. We thought we were only making four episodes so the story never got completely solidified the way it should’ve.” We started talking about the differences between British men and American men. All of a sudden we both got very excited at the notion, him to be able to redo something he’d done the first time and me to do something new that we could keep the aspects of the original that we loved so much but also the potential and the opportunity for completely original stuff.
Rotten Tomatoes: Cobi cheating on his wife will challenge audience sympathies. Do you see that akin to challenging our sympathy for Vic Mackey in the pilot of The Shield and then making us care about him throughout the series?
Ryan: I would say there are some similarities. I think cheating on your wife is a lesser crime than shooting a cop in the face. What I would say is that none of these guys are heroic. One of the things that always stuck to me that Cris said, I would ask him, “Why do you think the series was successful in the U.K.?” One of the things he said was that he was surprised how much women liked the show. It’s a very male show, all the main characters are male. In our series, some really great strong female characters do appear and play big roles, but obviously you have this core of men. I think ultimately they discovered that women liked it because they recognized their husbands, their brothers, their friends’ husbands in these characters. Obviously, infidelity is something that happens on a large scale. I don’t think it’s something that we’re celebrating. You see Ben Chaplin’s character very disturbed by the fact that his friend is doing this. There are ramifications afterwards in subsequent episodes to doing it. What I would say is a common thread between this and The Shield is that Vic Mackey, as played by Michael Chiklis, was very likable, even as he was doing unlikeable things. Here, Steve Zahn, there’s something that you just can’t help but laugh sometimes as he, playing that character, does some despicable things. I don’t know whether you will like Cobi but I do feel that you’ll like watching Cobi.
Rotten Tomatoes: We are drawn to watching unlikeable characters. That’s a bad Hollywood myth that characters should be likable.
Ryan: Right. I think it was mantra more in the TV world for a long time. I think people gravitate towards real characters. So you have a guy whose values, I think, initially in the pilot episode, are kind of shallow. He’s in this foreign country; what happens in Belize stays in Belize. He’s selfish and he’s going to behave in ways that he wants to and ignore the consequences. But because the show is what it is, there will be consequences. Things will come out of this and he’ll do some serious re-examination, and I think as long as your characters are true and honest to themselves, even if that honesty is about dishonesty, for instance, I think audiences can appreciate it and can recognize the humanity of it.
Rotten Tomatoes: They have bigger problems right now, but does the midlife crisis come back up?
Ryan: Very much so. Not even just with Cobi. Not even in a sexual way. These are all guys who are looking at having a fun long weekend that papers over the fact that, in various degrees, they’re all disappointed in their own lives. They knew each other when all their hopes and dreams were at their highest. They knew each other in college when the future seemed unlimited and there wasn’t going to be a cap. Now here you are 25 years later and one of their friends is seemingly very successful and has this amazing villa in the tropics. Another guy is just barely hanging on to his sobriety. Another guy is a frustrated teacher whose kids aren’t really talking to him. None of them would’ve predicted, other than maybe Billy Zane’s character, that this is where they’d be in their lives. They’re all looking to grab some kind of fleeting, reminiscing moment of that time when they thought something better was coming along. That’s why they want to be around each other, and yet that quickly morphs as you mentioned into something far darker, something far more dangerous, and now these are the people that they’re stuck with as they try to navigate out of that situation. Are these people really true friends? The main question we hit in episode two is “How strong are these friendships?”
Rotten Tomatoes: I don’t think they’re very strong in the pilot.
Ryan: I don’t think so either, but maybe there’s a potential to become stronger as they go through this crucible. We’ll have to see.
Rotten Tomatoes: Should we binge Mad Dogs?
Ryan: I hope so, and I think it’s been designed to do that. We spent a lot of time talking about how the binge viewing experience is different from the traditional viewing experience. One of the things we came up with is: when I was doing The Shield, we had a teaser and four acts. The end of act three was always the most important moment to me, launching the final act of the show, but there was enough in the middle that kept people engaged. Here, I think the most important moment of the show is the final beat of the show. Our goal is for it to be two in the morning and you know you have to get up at eight to work and yet you say to yourself, “I’m just going to watch one more.” You and the viewers will decide whether we’ve achieved it or not but our hope is that we’ve surprised you and defied your expectations enough each episode and ended on a note that just really makes you go, “I can’t believe that. What’s going to happen next.”
Rotten Tomatoes: Does the season end in a cliffhanger?
Ryan: No. This is a very, I think, satisfying 10-episode story. In wild success, in the future if we were to do more, the story would be very different, the location would probably different, some characters would be different. This is a story that will feel complete and, we hope, satisfying to you if you watch. It will not leave you hanging.
Rotten Tomatoes: I was never able to get an answer from CBS on why their Beverly Hills Cop pilot didn’t go. As a producer on it, could you answer that for me?
Ryan: Well, I don’t know that I have a definitive answer. I think there’s an official answer. I think there’s an unofficial answer that some investigative reporter might uncover one day. The official answer is they decided they liked other pilots better. If you look at what pilots they picked up that year, I think that’s kind of incredible. I would say there were a lot of 400 lb. gorillas involved in the show and sometimes the gorillas don’t always get along. It was a show that CBS did not own. It was produced by Sony and Paramount Pictures. You can do your own research into the relationship between CBS and Paramount Pictures.
Rotten Tomatoes: I accept your challenge to do the investigative reporting. I also suspected when Eddie Murphy decided he wanted to do another movie, that might’ve killed the show.
Ryan: That didn’t affect it. Eddie was great. The best part about the pilot experience was getting to work with Eddie. The saddest part of the pilot experience was people not getting to see his work in that. I’m proud of the pilot. I stand by the pilot and I think the pilot was better than the other pilots they picked up that year. Eddie himself was fantastic. If anything was a problem, it was Eddie was so good in the pilot and you knew that you weren’t going to have him for the majority of the episodes. Another possible explanation is it was hard to judge what the show would be without Eddie, because he was such an electric part of that particular pilot.
Rotten Tomatoes: Even Chicago Code and Last Resort only lasted one season. Would you ever develop for network again?
Ryan: I’m developing right now. We have a pilot that I’ve co-written with Eric Kripke for NBC that we’re awaiting word on. It’s called Time and it’s a time travel show that’s kind of a good popcorny attempt to do for television what Spielberg and Michael Crichton did in the movies. What’s a big tentpole thing that can touch on history? I’m pretty psyched about the pilot episode we’ve written. Hopefully we get a chance to make it.
Rotten Tomatoes: Do you believe in the Back to the Future, The Terminator, or Timecop rules of time travel?
Ryan: We spent a lot of time talking about the rules. We’ve kind of developed our own. Certainly they share some DNA with other famous time travel books or movies. You try to be consistent. You also have to think about making sure, if you end up making 80 or 100 episodes of the show, the rules have to be able to accommodate that. Yet, you also don’t want to be mirroring too closely something some other property has done. There’s no fading out in front of your eyes pictures as in Back to the Future.
Rotten Tomatoes: I’m okay with that, but I thought it was B.S. in Timecop that if you touched your past self you’d turn into a blob and disappear. You’re not the same matter as yourself when you’ve aged 10 years.
Ryan: Interesting. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen Timecop. I don’t have the rules down but one of the things we discussed is you can’t have a situation where a person goes back and if it doesn’t work out, they can just go back to five minutes before that. You have to have some kind of rule that prevents that that makes sense. What’s interesting is even though time travel, to our knowledge, isn’t possible right now, everyone does have opinions on what’s real or not real about it. [Laughs] You’d think there’d be a little more flexibility. I think the important part of a show like that is to establish your rules and to live by them.
The entire first season of Mad Dogs premieres January 22 on Amazon. Read reviews here.