One factor that complicates any ability to dissect the excesses of Amazon’s schlocky new drama Hunters is the show’s Do Not Reveal list, a document provided to critics with screeners of the first five episodes. So I can’t write about the opening scene, a symbolic demolition of the American Dream in which a bumptious politician grilling burgers in a Kiss the Cook apron is revealed to be [redacted]. Or about what happens an hour later (the first episode runs a fulsome 90 minutes), when the show portrays an elderly woman, fully naked, being targeted in the shower for reasons that are [redacted]. Or the decision in the fifth episode to stage a scene in which a soignée society matron is tortured by being forced to eat quantities of [redacted].
Hunters is a strange show, all aestheticized violence and infantile philosophizing, like a George Clooney Batman movie directed by Quentin Tarantino. The style is big and loud, as befits the 1977 setting; the superhero references are endless; the Holocaust is invoked and re-created in flashback sequences so many times that the show has to invent new atrocities for the Nazis to commit (the old ones being apparently not enough). One character is referred to as “a real-life fucking Jewperhero.” A psychopath shoots a flamingo in a fit of pique. All the while, Hunters labors to emphasize its own moral depth, even as its main theoretical concern comes down to a fairly basic question: Is it okay to kill a Nazi?
The star of this Baudrillardian spectacle is indubitably Al Pacino playing Meyer Offerman, the serene overseer of a band of vigilante Nazi hunters in 1977 New York. But the show, created by the relative newcomer David Weil and produced by Jordan Peele, is loyal to comic-book origin stories, and so the central character is Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a sullen, bratty teenager who lives with his grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), gets beaten up by bullies, and indulges in endless debates about superhero ethics with his two best friends. Unlike, say, Peter Parker, Jonah sells weed to support his family, which Ruth implores him to stop doing, telling him that every decision in life comes down to a choice between darkness and light. One night, Ruth is murdered in front of Jonah, which leads him to Meyer, and to the revelation that his mild-mannered bubbe, a concentration-camp survivor, had been secretly working to find and kill Nazis living in America. (Those Nazis have survived to form a new, Hydra-like group bent on malevolence and world domination.) Forget the Talmudic prescription for living well; the best revenge, Meyer tells Jonah with acid relish, is simply “revenge.”
An early problem of the show is that the now-dead Nazi hunter Ruth is a much more compelling character than Jonah, who sulks his way into Meyer’s camp (Hunters occasionally alludes to the fact that Jonah is a brilliant mathematician and a master code-breaker but largely just presents him as a chump). At a Television Critics Association panel earlier this year, Weil spoke about how the inspiration for the show was his grandmother, a Holocaust survivor whose stories always struck the young Weil as having a comic-book quality in their pitting of good against evil. That graphic novels have plumbed the villainous depths of Nazism isn’t a coincidence: The Third Reich’s fetishization of symbols, combined with its unimaginable cruelty, suits the visual punch and narrative simplicity of the medium.
But as much as Hunters borrows from comic books, it also pilfers heavily from another genre, yielding a confounding tone. Weil’s storytelling structure might be ripped from Marvel, but its style is grind house. Not the sexualized torture porn of movies like Love Camp 7 and Last Orgy of the Third Reich, but the numbing, vapid violence of exploitation films and particularly Tarantino’s Inglourious Basterds. For all of Jonah’s ethical quandaries about violence, Hunters is pretty clear on the fact that killing Nazis isn’t just defensible—it’s also fun. Why wouldn’t it be, when the show’s foundational material offers such clear lines between heroes and villains, and such cheerful capacity for carnage?
As Jonah meets Meyer’s squad, Hunters leans all the way into its ’70s setting, introducing each character in cinematic, B-movie-trailer style. There’s Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), a nun and former MI6 agent (it pays not to think too hard about why she’s a nun, as her habits all end mid-thigh and she’s fairly murderous). There’s Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a character more thinly drawn and trope-y than Foxxy Cleopatra. Similarly thin is Louis Ozawa Changchien’s Joe Torrance, a martial-arts expert and Korean War veteran who teaches Jonah how to fight. Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek play Mindy and Murray Markowitz, a married couple with indeterminate skill sets but enormous charm. How I Met Your Mother’s Josh Radnor is unreasonably delightful as Lonny Flash, a down-on-his-luck actor who’s supposedly a master of disguise, even though his handlebar mustache would seem to render him unmistakable.
What’s most maddening about Hunters is that much of it works in individual pieces, even though the whole is a sweaty, overseasoned smorgasbord. A plotline featuring an FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton) on the hunters’ trail is propulsive, and Pacino’s Meyer is a charismatic, intriguing ringleader. Despite its heightened universe, the show is based loosely on real events—not an elite faction of specialized Nazi hunters, necessarily, but the discovery in the 1960s and ’70s that a number of Nazis had escaped justice to make new lives in America, sometimes even with the assistance of the U.S. government. This inkblot on the pages of recent history is ripe for scrutiny, well beyond the satirical wink Hunters offers up. But each character is sneering and mindlessly sociopathic: Dylan Baker plays Biff Simpson, a politician whose rictus grin and ham-eating southern accent have earned him a place in Jimmy Carter’s cabinet. His most reliable enforcer is Travis Leich (Greg Austin), an American Nazi whose sadistic zeal and yen for speechifying are matched only by his passion for musical theater.
If Hunters were just so much schlock and gore, it might have its place on Peak TV’s periphery, although presumably not on Amazon, and not with Pacino so resplendently playing, as one character calls him, “Shylock Holmes.” But it clearly has loftier intentions, for all its grotesquerie. The persistent flashbacks to concentration camps speak to survivor stories that are fading by the day, and the show’s most thoughtful and moving scene (which, again, I can’t write about) communicates some sense of the scale of the Holocaust without reverting to trauma porn. Weil seems to feel the burden of sharing his grandmother’s stories (“The single greatest gift of the Jewish people is our capacity to remember,” Meyer tells Jonah), which is why the show’s exploitation format sits so strangely with the atrocities it’s parsing, and the actual people who are being exploited.
In an interview with The AV Club, Weil talked about wanting to give nuance and depth to all his characters, especially the evil ones. In telling the story of the Holocaust, he said, a series like Hunters can help “prevent it from ever happening again,” in part by showing how people were recruited to the Nazi cause. “These are human beings,” he said. “We don’t want to make them caricatures, or then we do a disservice to the efforts of so many who combat fascism and Nazis.” But caricatures, at least in the first five episodes, are exactly what these villains are—stock goose-stepping evildoers with monstrous impulses and no discernible shreds of humanity. There’s no subtlety to be found here; no contemporary insight into the alienation, disempowerment, and fear of “the other” that might compel weak people to embrace such banal veneration of power. This just isn’t that show. You can craft a historical drama that scrupulously explores anti-Semitism, or you can have a florid extravaganza in which Al Pacino hollers, “Let’s get to cooking these Nazi cunts!” To try to do both is a superheroic stretch, and Hunters doesn’t have the reach.