I’ve always been a little sensitive about how Nazis are portrayed in popular culture. The Holocaust remains one of the great stains on human history — and in an era in which alt-right groups are suddenly more public and vocal than in decades, we’re reminded that moral monsters live among us. But that doesn’t mean every depiction of Nazis in movies or TV shows is automatically compelling. Quite the contrary, there’s almost a greater responsibility involved when you make Nazis your bad guys — the writers and directors have to earn the right to evoke such nightmarish individuals.
Hunters, which premieres on Friday, isn’t trying to be Schindler’s List or The Sorrow and the Pity or Shoah. It’s not a documentary or a solemn look back at the Nazis’ attempt to eradicate the Jewish people. Indeed, this Amazon series is mostly just a pulp-y, twist-y drama that wants to recall the violent, hyper-vivid thrills of graphic novels. (The characters — a cadre of unlikely warriors on the trail of Nazis hiding in America — talk about comic books and movies endlessly.) But by appealing a patina of seriousness and timely commentary on top of its lurid, binge-friendly plotting, Hunters aims to be more than escapist pleasure. And, so far, I don’t think the series quite achieves its higher aspirations. At a time when fascism isn’t just some theoretical concept, Hunters feels too glib. In particular, I hate its Nazis — but not in the way the series intends.
Created by relative newcomer David Weil, and executive produced by Jordan Peele, the show takes place primarily in New York in 1977, focusing on the sad life of Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a sensitive 19-year-old whose only family, his adoring grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), is murdered early on in the first episode. Devastated and desperate for answers, Jonah tries to track down her killer, which leads him to Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), a mysterious, rich stranger who, it turns out, has known Ruth for years. Meyer invites Jonah to join the Hunters, a team of mostly Jewish vigilantes dedicated to finding and killing Nazis who have integrated into American culture, hoping to erase their past crimes. One such Nazi killed Ruth, which is all the impetus Jonah needs to become part of the Hunters.
In the press notes, Weil explains that the series is personal for him, inspired by his love for his grandmother Sara, who survived Auschwitz. Describing Sara as “the ultimate badass of wartime Poland,” Weil notes that she would tell her stories to him and his brothers when he was a boy. “At the time, her stories felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes,” he writes. “Grand battles between good and evil.” Hunters, according to Weil, is “a love letter to my grandmother. It’s an attempt to fulfill my birthright. To put on the vigilante cape.”
You probably won’t need that background when you watch the series, the first five episodes of which were made available to critics. (The entire series runs 10 episodes.) Very much akin to Quentin Tarantino’s reference-heavy films, Hunters is awash in pop-culture riffing. The individual Hunters — including horny, recovering-addict actor Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor) and Black Power activist Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone) — are 1970s-cinema clichés introduced with a Dick Dale-like soundtrack. Occasionally, the series stops to feature parody commercials or faux movie trailers. And throughout, there’s a winking, comedic juxtaposition between the knowingly stereotypically Jewish characters — along with Jonah and Meyer, there’s the kvetching married couple Mindy (Carol Kane) and Murray (Saul Rubinek) — and the heist-movie suspense of their Dirty Dozen-like missions.
On one level, Hunters is a sly subversion of anti-Semitic tropes. Several of the Hunters speak in thick New York Jewish accents, their dialogue peppered with Yiddish and Hebrew. They intentionally don’t look or talk like conventional superheroes or elite assassins. Even Tarantino’s Nazi-hunters in Inglourious Basterds, who were Jewish soldiers, acted like trained killers — by comparison, Meyer and his older cohorts are underdogs driven to avenge the atrocities they survived. For the younger Hunters, like Louis Ozawa Changchien’s scarred Vietnam vet, the desire to kill Nazis is more about simply snuffing out evil in the world. And the orphaned Jonah is simply looking for a place to call home — as well as justice for his beloved Safta.
It’s easy to appreciate Weil’s desire to create authentic Jewish crime-fighters while simultaneously wishing that Hunters was more original in its construction. Anyone who’s spent any time watching The Man in the High Castle or The Handmaid’s Tale will recognize Hunters’ grim narrative contours. Early on, Weil establishes that there are nefarious forces inside the U.S. government that are conspiring to do… something bad — and that they consist of former Nazis plotting to bring the Fourth Reich to America. Like those other shows, Hunters wants to freak out viewers — while entertaining them — with the possibility that our freedom-loving country could be overtaken by oppressive regimes. (Talk about pertinent!) As the series rolls along, the Hunters target individual Nazis, not yet fully understanding that they’ve stumbled onto a larger plot. (Jerrika Hinton plays Millie, an FBI agent who, independently of the Hunters, is investigating the same plot, unaware of the vigilantes’ existence.)
There’s a surface enjoyment to watching Pacino and the rest of the ensemble make like a Jewish Mystery Incorporated, unleashing violent justice on malevolent Nazis who most deservedly have it coming. For all of us who’d like to punch an alt-right shithead, Hunters provides its share of visceral, vicarious satisfaction. But the problem comes when Weil and his creative team try to get us to invest in the more sobering elements of his story. We will discover that certain characters were in Auschwitz, and while their pain (and the pain of so many actual Jews who experienced the camps) is real, Hunters tends to reduce that trauma to cheap plot points.
Likewise, the series’ Nazi characters end up just being Movie Nazis — i.e., certain types of predictable villainy that seem pulled from other works of fiction, not the anguish of actual events. There is the sniveling, scheming Nazi (Dylan Baker). There is the cold, aloof Nazi (Lena Olin). And most laughable of all, there is the super-psycho, killing-machine Nazi — his name is Travis (Greg Austin), an enforcer who appears to have gone to the same charm school as No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh. Travis doesn’t just assassinate people — he does so in ridiculously overly choreographed fashion, providing bizarre factoids before he metes out his punishment. (The guy is like a lethal Snapple bottle cap.) None of Hunters’ Nazis have the alarming normalcy of the casual wickedness of the world around us: They’re brazenly, blandly capital-E evil in a way that only occurs in unsubtle works of fiction. They’re not offensive constructions as much as they are lazy — and they show no understanding that true menace is hiding in plain sight all the time.
Granted, I’ve only seen the first five episodes, and so maybe Hunters will become a smart, nuanced series. But I doubt it. Weil and his writers pay lip-service to the hoariest of revenge-drama themes — By seeking vengeance, are we as evil as the evildoers we wish to smite?!?! — while creating more and more colorful ways for the Hunters to dispense with their prey. This series was inspired by Weil’s admiration for his grandmother, but Hunters is filtered through weightless pop culture in a way that’s cut off from the real atrocities that occurred — and still occur. (Weirdly, for all of its digressions and indulgences, Inglourious Basterds at least understood how to make the Nazis properly repellant.)
In dark times, movies and TV can hold a mirror up to society, demanding that we act. Too often, however, Hunters just cares about keeping you hooked so you’ll click on the next episode.