I admit that I was terrified to hear America was remaking one of my favorite British TV shows, Mad Dogs. The massacre of Life on Mars on ABC is still too fresh in my memory six years later, and again America thinks they can swap out John Simm and Philip Glenister for Michael Imperioli and it will all be okay–We’ve seen this formula before and it ended what was meant to be a complex psychological 70s cop drama in a punny space expedition with daddy issues. Who did they think they were, Lost or something? Not to mention that something magical happened with the original Mad Dogs: brilliant writer, gorgeous cinematography, and highly talented cast. Could they be so lucky as to replicate that magic serum again?
I’m embarrassed to admit now that I’ve seen the American pilot that the American remake actually isn’t that bad. In fact, it might even be as good as the original. Part of the secret sauce is that Cris Cole is back as the writer and although the dialogue isn’t word for word the same as the original, it’s very much the same story. The characters are pretty much exactly the same and the plot only has minor changes–such as instead of locking their cell phones in a safe, they simply don’t have cell service in Belize. (Oh yeah, they changed the location from Spain to Central America and it weirdly doesn’t seem to make a jot of difference. Same bright colors, lush settings, and lizards running around.)
The premise of Mad Dogs is that four men in their 40s who had been friends at school reunite at their fifth friend’s new luxurious villa in Belize, but in between their mid-life crises and personal dramas, they get caught up in an international gang conspiracy that puts them on the run, possibly for life. In the UK version, the fifth friend is Alvo, played by Ben Chaplin. After Alvo goes off the deep end and steals a boat, someone asks, “Why won’t any of you stand up to him?” It’s clear that between the four of them, they could stop him, but they are all failures and don’t even try. However, in the US remake, Alvo (now called Milo) is played by Billy Zane, a large, bald, deep-voiced man. When someone asks, “Why won’t any of you stand up to him?” it’s a no-brainer. I don’t blame them. It’s an entirely different dynamic, one that doesn’t highlight the four’s incompetence as much.
Warning: This post contains spoilers for both the American and British versions. It’s really meant for people who have seen one version and are interested in what the other version is like but don’t want to make the commitment of watching the whole thing. It’s also a good reminder if you’ve seen both but not back to back.
Alvo/Milo is (spoilers) killed off in the first episode, so, despite some flashback episodes, Ben Chaplin doesn’t get a lot of screen time in the UK version. Luckily for him, he is cast in the US remake, and this time one of the four. He plays Joel (Philip Glenister’s Quinn in the original), a divorcee who may or may not be having an affair with Cobi’s wife. Cobi is played by Steve Zahn, a perfect US counterpart to Marc Warren’s Rick. Michael Imperioli’s Lex is immediately recognizable as Max Beesley’s Woody when he refuses the champagne toast, having recently gone sober. Finally, Romany Malco plays Gus, the ex-lawyer. Malco is a perfect fit for what was originally John Simm’s Baxter because Malco is a fantastic actor, as was Simm in the original. His expression at the murder of his friend is the best around the table, and I hope that Amazon makes more episodes because watching Baxter become more and more neurotic as the seasons went on was the best part of the show and Malco has already shown he can fill those shoes. His character is framed for the murder as the cat-masked gangster (Tiny Blair in the original) wipes Gus’s DNA all over the weapon. Because he is African American, it brings a whole new level to the framing. Gus points out that the police will be quick to stereotype the black man from Chicago as the murderer.
The remake doesn’t end in the same place, and actually, even though the murder of Alvo was an ending that made you want to go to episode 2 right away, it’s good to have the panicked cleanup in the same episode so that the mood doesn’t dip if you happen to wait between episodes (not me–I watched each season in one sitting). Instead, we end episode one with the realization that Cobi’s camera is still on the boat.
Having now watched all 10 episodes of season 1 of the US version, I reviewed the Amazon version for Head Butler, trying to be objective, not comparing it to the original. But the comparisons are fun! Let’s look at some more differences between the two versions.
QUICK GUIDE TO HELP YOU
UK: Rick is played by Marc Warren / US: Cobi is played by Steve Zahn
UK: Baxter is played by John Simm / US: Gus is played by Romany Malco
UK: Quinn is played by Philip Glenister / US: Joel is played by Ben Chaplin
UK: Woody is played by Max Beesley / US: Lex is played by Michael Imperioli
UK: Alvo is played by Ben Chaplin / US: Milo is played by Billy Zane
UK: Mackenzie is played by David Warner / US: Lawrence is played by Philip Davis
UK: Carmen is played by Loticia Dolera / US: Erica is played by Rachael Holmes
UK: Maria is played by Maria Botto / US: Sophia is also played by Maria Botto(!)
EPISODE ONE RECAP
The first episode is pretty much the same. Instead of locking their phones in a safe, Rick throws them into the water in episode 2. The dwarf is a cat (Mark Povinelli) rather than Tony Blair (Tomas Pozzi), apparently, because it’s too hard to get politicians’ likenesses cleared in the States. Actually, a cat is better anyway because the show is all about how these four grown, civilized men can’t accomplish anything. They can’t even handle one dwarf, four to one. Likewise, if they are the dogs of “Mad Dogs,” then the four dogs can’t even handle one cat. Gus says that because he’s a black man from Chicago, the cops are going to be quick to pin the murder of Milo on him. Race doesn’t come up too much in the show, but there is one scene where he insults a member of the US embassy by saying that he has to work extra hard to make people like her feel comfortable.
MAJORCA, SPAIN VS. BELIZE
In the first episode, it seemed irrelevant that they’d moved the location of Milo’s villa to Central America, but the location and culture actually have a big impact on the story later on. The whole landscape is different. There are thicker jungles and even a mine quarry that the boys have to step through without getting blown up.
Even though there are plenty of goats to bring bad luck in Belize, it’s the tapir that is the county’s national animal, and it’s the tapir that causes them to crash their car.
The journey out of Majorca is a piece of cake. There’s a little tension on the ferry when the man runs Rick’s credit card, but that’s it. The ferry is luxurious, and they wind up in Ibeza for season 2 without a problem. The journey out of Belize is much more dramatic. They have to illegally cross the border with a fishing boat because they don’t have their passports. Then they wind up in an area infected with a mutated small pox virus and all end up in quarantine. This scenario takes up a whole episode, a storyline that didn’t exist in the original show. This might be to add drama or even padding, but it might also have to do with the real-life logistics of getting out of Belize without a passport if you’re on the run from the police.
IT ISN’T ABOUT AGING
The undertone of the UK version was all about what it was like to be middle-aged, that is, just north of 40. Just look at the opening of season 2, for example: Baxter wonders if his new glasses make him look too middle aged, and Quinn says how many men “of our age” get the chance to start all over? The whole show is like one big mid-life crisis. In America, I don’t think that culturally we are looking behind us wondering where our lives went quite that early, so the whole theme has been wiped for the American rewrite. What it’s actually about (in both versions, really) is being civilized men. The Americans can’t handle a simple lizard. They get way too excited about being able to fix a boat. They talk about their mini Coke cans and the use of Linked-In. They’re over-civilized and incapable of living outside their bubble. On the whole, the characters in both versions fit the American stereotype perfectly. All the more reason it’s funny that it’s called Mad Dogs when the name clearly refers to the song “Mad Dogs and Englishmen.”
I do wonder how being American affects the character dynamics, though. The CIA was involved in the UK version, too, but it was UK citizens with American CIA agents, whereas this time it’s American citizens with American CIA agents. So far, that seems irrelevant, but I would think it would cause a different dynamic in the end. They certainly went out of their way to make CIA agent Aaron as American as possible–obsessed with his physical strength and agility, like some kind of over-steroid-ed camp councilor. He even gives the boys a speech on their American exceptionalism. But it’s also interesting to see who they have changed to American and who they kept English. Mackenzie (now Lawrence) is English in both versions, for example. I’m not entirely sure why.
THEY HIT US OVER THE HEAD WITH THE PLOTLINE
The UK version had a lot of subtlety. You finished watching the show and still weren’t entirely sure who was on whose side. It wasn’t really important that you knew all the behind the scenes works of the villains because it was really about the lads being in over their heads in a world they didn’t understand. However, in the US version, they are very careful that viewers never get lost. They want to make doubly sure that you know Joel is with Cobi’s wife, so they add in that scene where it’s revealed that Joel knows Cobi’s wife’s cell number by heart. They want to make doubly sure that we know that Sophia is not just a normal cop, so when they go to the station, she denies having ever seen them before. And in the final scene of the season, Lawrence blurts out the explanation of what was really going on and who was on whose side in a Columbo-style wrap up for those of us at home not following along…including the minor detail that the villa actually belongs to Lawrence.
GOOD VS. EVIL
One of the biggest differences in the two versions of the show is that there’s no good vs. evil in the US version. In the original, the boys didn’t really know who was working for whom or who was higher in rank than whom, and it didn’t matter. It was them vs. the world. In the US version, no one is portrayed as genuinely bad. Everyone’s just trying to survive. The dwarf, though never given a name, is portrayed as human. He’s a man who needs to complete his task or else he’ll have to answer to Jesus. We see his wife and children. We see the people who attend his funeral. Even Lawrence attends his funeral and seeks revenge on Aaron for killing his friend, which in turn makes Lawrence human and not the mysterious evil that surrounded Mackenzie.
JESUS VS. JESUS
In the UK version, the boys all call the villain “Jesus” pronounced like the son of God, to show how over-Anglo they are. In the US version, they pronounce it like it would actually be pronounced, hey-SOOS. This might be because someone realized that the boys couldn’t possibly be that un-worldly, but also because it’s a better punchline when Rochelle writes, “Jesus is everywhere.” After that, we start noticing bumper stickers with that phrase on it.
RICK VS. COBI
Steve Zahn’s character Cobi is written very similarly to Marc Warren’s Rick. He’s a constant fuck-up. He barely hesitates to sell-out his friends. He even tells an American tourist that his wife is dead because he thinks he can get her to bed. Cobi goes a little darker than Rick in episode one because it turns out that the girl he invited back to his place when they all went clubbing only slept with him because he’d promised to help her with some finances. They’ve also written out his children, so it’s only Gus and Joel who have kids.
WOODY VS. LEX
I don’t know if the writers didn’t think Woody was well-rounded enough or what, but they seemed to have given Lex all the other characters’ extra baggage. They gave Lex Quinn’s ailing father, and they gave him Rick’s hallucinations. It’s interesting having the hallucinations come from the only sober member of the group rather than the druggy because now we don’t really wonder whether or not the hallucinations are a cause of Rick’s messed up bodily chemistry. Instead, we wonder if what Lex is seeing is related to his trauma or whether the spirit world is real.
Also, while Woody falls off the wagon pretty quickly, Lex actually gets stabbed for refusing to drink alcohol as a token of trust.
CARMEN VS. ERICA
In the UK version, Carmen isn’t introduced until they get to Ibeza in episode 5, whereas her US equivalent is introduced much earlier, while they are still in Belize. In the UK version, she was a shady cash handler, quick to help the boys exchange their stolen cash and take a 25% cut, but in the US version, she’s a pharmacy worker who only takes the cash by accident when her mother drives away too quickly. Yes, she still has a little old lady strapped to her hip. There is a mutual attraction between Gus and Erica, just as between Baxter and Carmen, despite the trouble they keep getting each other into.
WE DON’T GET THE BEST LINE!
My favorite line in the original has always been Quinn breaking up an argument by saying, “We’re supposed to be looking for a foot!” This is after they’ve sawed of Alvo’s feet and have dropped it somewhere along the path. The UK version skips over the hike to the boat with the dead body and adds in a bit about accidentally dropping the body in the water, just as an American tourist family goes by. The party boat scene is also left out. It’s a shame because being so early on, the foot scene was the moment I fell in love with the surreal style of the show. The drug dealer scene on the boat is also a little different because he takes out the fuse, making it impossible for the boys to return the boat to Jesus that day, which means they need to come back later to figure out how to fix it. Since there are ten episodes in the same city, many of the characters who only got one scene in the UK version come back to haunt the boys in the US version (literally in Sophia’s case). Joel runs into the drug dealers again. He points them out to a CIA woman, who kills them. Didn’t see that one coming.
Renting a car in the UK version seems insignificant when they do it, but it comes back to bite Baxter in the ass later when, after he thinks he’s escaped, he’s hit with a massive fine for never returning the car. In the US version, they emphasize the car rental by making the boys return to the car rental place two more times after they’ve destroyed the first car and lost the keys to the second. However, all of this only results in a punchline at the end of the season when the FBI agent (played by Monk‘s Ted Levine) lists off all of Gus’s crimes, ending with the non-return of a rental car.
There is a sense of magic in both versions. In the US version, it’s the myth of a Xtobi spirit that has sex with you before you die in order to decide whether you should die or carry on living. The boys are also cursed multiple times, once by a window washer in a scene not unlike UK’s season 4 with the chicken man and window washer on the highway, and once by a woman with fire crackers. Neither version ever establishes whether the magic is real or just making them more paranoid. The boys in the US version even argue about who’s fault this all is for bringing them bad luck.
ARE THEY VICTIMS OR RESPONSIBLE?
One of the big themes of the UK version was whether the lads were victims or whether they were responsible. By the end, they had convinced themselves that they are genuinely good people with bad luck, with some ironic distance that made us see them more as sinners on a path to hell. It was a constant question of fate vs. will. Sometimes in the UK version, I really did feel like they were puppets on a string, though ultimately that’s not what they turned out to be. Randomly, things would pop up from their past and make them feel like victims because there’s no possible way those things should come back to haunt them. As viewers, we are in their shoes because we are following their story.
But the US version, you always feel that they are idiots with poor moral compasses because we are privy to scenes without them in it. We get to see inside the police station when they aren’t there. We see Lawrence creeping around, making plans. We see the FBI detective following their trail. We see what happened to Rochelle who they left for dead, so it’s no surprise when she pops up. By now, you’re on Rochelle’s side, wondering why they left her for dead. When the others complain of their bad luck, Lex says, “We brought this on ourselves.” He’s right. You feel less sympathy for the boys in the US version, even though they are the exact same people as the UK version. It’s all in the storytelling.
WHO IS JESUS? WHO IS DOMINIC?
After leaving Majorca, the lads don’t seem too concerned with Jesus. They’re preoccupied with Mackenzie and Dominic. However, since the boys in the US version never leave Belize, Jesus is a constant threat, and the writers give what I consider a bit of “fan fiction” for the viewers who always wanted to know who the hell Jesus is. We meet Jesus…sort of. We meet his daughter, who seems to be running her father’s family business after she killed him. Dominic, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to exist in the US version. Maybe he’s replaced by the invention of Aaron, but they don’t play the same role. Dominic was a mobster the lads never really interacted with save for running him over with their car. It’s Dominic who ultimately seals their fate in season 4. Without a Dominic, there’s no way the series is going to end the same, unless they bring somebody else back to life.
THAT ENDING! (seriously, spoilers, guys)
At the end of season 1 of the UK version, the lads do actually leave Quinn behind in the villa, but only for a moment before they go back for him. By the end of episode 1 season 3, they are all on a plane together, getting out of Spain. However, in the US version, only three of them make it onto the plane. Joel (who is Quinn) returns to the villa to take up Milo’s old job. This is extra spooky because in the UK version Milo (aka Alvo) was played by Ben Chaplin who now plays Joel. It unintentionally makes it feel cyclical, like Joel is about to phone up his other college friends Baxter, Quinn, Woody, and Rick to start the whole thing again.
But anyway. Joel pretends to work with Lawrence for a moment before shooting him dead. Now, this is a big deal if you’re hoping that the US version will still stay semi-on course with the UK version because it’s really Mackenzie’s (aka Lawrence) continued existence that forces the lads to go into hiding and get new identities in season 3. When they discover that Mackenzie is dead, they return to their old lives. Now that Lawrence is dead by Joel’s hand, that storyline won’t happen, not in that way, anyway.
Can’t wait for another season!