Hunters is an extremely aggressive TV show on pretty much every level. It’s aggressive in tone, and jarring in its many tonal shifts. It’s often extremely violent. Its evocation of its primary era — the summer of 1977 — is as loud as an 8-track of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack cranked to the highest possible volume. (Sometimes Hunters actually does crank up songs from the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack at a high volume.) All of which makes it odd that one of the least aggressive things in this new Amazon series is Al Pacino.
As Meyer Offerman, the ringleader of a group of Nazi hunters that could only exist in a comic book, a ’70s action flick, a Tarantino movie, or a 2020 TV series trying to evoke the style of all three, Pacino still commands most of his scenes — his first, by the way, in an ongoing scripted series. But Pacino largely channels his intensity via whispers rather than shouts. “Living well is not the best revenge,” Meyer slyly advises his new young charge, Jonah (Logan Lerman), in one of the most quotable moments in the show. “Revenge is the best revenge.”
There’s plenty of revenge to go around in this ten-episode drama, created by first-time-series creator and showrunner David Weil and executive-produced by Jordan Peele. In general, there’s a lot of a LOT to go around in Hunters, which strives for serious drama and LOL comedy while engaging in wild action sequences one moment, then depicting wrenching flashbacks to the Holocaust in the next. It’s a streaming series that goes out on many limbs but, based on the five episodes offered for review, doesn’t have the sense of equilibrium to hold its balance on any of them.
The reluctant hero at the center of the story is Jonah, who, early in the series, witnesses the murder of his Holocaust survivor grandmother, Ruth (Jeannie Berlin, whose presence is instantly missed), but doesn’t see who the assailant is. While sitting shiva for Ruth, his safta (the Hebrew word for grandmother), Jonah meets Meyer, an old friend of Ruth’s who invites Jonah into his lair where he and a pack of Third Reich avengers regularly assemble to coordinate their plans to track down swastika-sporting types who have been living undetected in the U.S. since World War II ended, and who may even be planning to launch a Fourth Reich on American soil.
The members of Meyer’s squad are introduced with a swaggering attitude that is not just reminiscent of Tarantino’s work, but practically stolen from it outright. In a bat mitzvah fantasy sequence set to music that could easily pass for Dick Dale’s “Misirlou,” the show invites each Nazi hunter, in addition to Meyer, to light a candle: Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), a nun/former member of MI6; Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), a has-been actor who dresses, at all times, like he’s headed straight to the set of a second Starsky and Hutch reboot; Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a Black Power activist in the tradition of Pam Grier and Foxxy Cleopatra; Vietnam veteran Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Changchien), a master of hand-to-hand combat; and spouses Mindy and Murray Markowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek), Holocaust survivors, weapons experts, and a pair of proclaimed “Chabad-asses.” It’s like a coed Fox Force Five with a couple of additional members. Jonah joins the group as the kid who shouldn’t be there, according to Sister Harriet (to her point, his judgment is sometimes off), as well as a genius-level decoder, a skill he attains quite literally in the blink of an eye. As written, Jonah isn’t the most realistic character, but Lerman lends him a constant sense of agitation and determination that makes him more authentic than he might otherwise be.
If Hunters were just about these warriors for WWII justice and their attempts to eliminate the heilers of Hitler, that would be plenty. But there’s more to it, including a major focus on FBI agent Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton of Grey’s Anatomy), who’s charged with investigating a murder in Florida and, later, the death of Jonah’s safta; Travis (Greg Austin), a villain who’s stalking Millie, among others, and essentially serves as the Anton Chigurh of the Hunters universe; and several incarcerated Jews and Nazi agents whose backstories are explained in flashbacks that provide context about what’s being discovered in the present.
The sprawling and excessive amount of plot, coupled with constant hopscotching through different locations and eras — announced, always, in massive, red Mindhunter-style fonts — isn’t even the show’s biggest problem. Hunters’ downfall is its insistence on swinging for all the fences without proving it can even hit a single. This could have been a full-on revenge fantasy that’s all snappy action and wink-wink laughs, Inglourious Basterds with a few doses of Deadpool. Its over-the-top costumes and production design — this show’s aesthetic hasn’t met a garish wallpaper it doesn’t like — suggest that’s at least partly what it’s going for, yet when Hunters tries to conjure witty dialogue or embrace the absurd, it misses the mark. This is especially true when it comes to Radnor’s Lonny, who practically has comic relief bedazzled into his mega-wide collars. “If she were a couple years younger,” Lonny says at one point of Jonah’s safta, “I might have mazeled her tov, gefilted her fish.” Gefilted her fish?
The series is just as prone to ruminate on grief or show us images of the Holocaust that are sincerely sad and upsetting, which makes the series feel like it’s running on parallel, disconnected emotional tracks. One can understand why Weil, who is Jewish and whose grandmother survived the Holocaust, may feel conflicting impulses when it comes to revisiting such painful and personal history. But others have proven it is possible to toggle between tones while dealing with this type of sensitive subject matter. Tarantino did it in the aforementioned Inglourious Basterds. So did Taika Waititi in JoJo Rabbit, though he was helped by the fact that his film is from the POV of a young boy whose assumptions about Nazis are, to say the least, divorced from reality.
Being both real and ridiculous in a narrative about one of the most painful periods in world history is an especially hard trick to pull off, especially in a creator’s first go at running a series, and Hunters doesn’t rise to that challenge. It invites us to shed tears and tuck our tongues into our cheeks at the same time. Have you ever tried to do that? It feels uncomfortable and strange, which is also a pretty apt description of Hunters.