'Hunters': TV Review

Whether it's good or bad is unclear, but it's definitely fascinating.
2/21/2020

Executive produced by Jordan Peele, Amazon's 1970s-set drama starring Al Pacino is less a straightforward chronicle of Nazi-hunting and more a flashy slice of Jewsploitation.

In his first regular TV series role, Al Pacino delivers a performance in Amazon's Hunters that occasionally borders on ridiculous, boasting an outsize German accent and hitting sage platitudes with shtetl-flavored zeal. That does not mean, however, that it's a bad performance. There's a confident wisdom and impish cleverness to what Pacino is doing, a sense of fun that comes from watching the wheels spin in this iconic star's head. It's just hard to judge it using traditional metrics of quality.

The same is true of Hunters as a whole. After seeing five episodes, I'm still struggling to decide if the show is quality TV, and if I like it or not. What I'm sure of is that I find it fascinating and while I may not necessary want to recommend it, I want to talk to people about it, so I guess that's a recommendation of a different kind? This is a ballsy, unnerving, entertaining, overreaching show, one likely to provoke and annoy in equal measure. It may require an almost Talmudic level of study to determine if Hunters is good or bad for the Jews, but I'm willing to participate.

Set in the summer of 1977, the show begins with a series of deaths, letting audiences know that Nazis have infiltrated the country in daunting — any quantity greater than "zero" is probably "daunting" — numbers. It's a lesson that 19-year-old Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) is about to learn under tragic circumstances with the murder of his beloved grandmother (Jeannie Berlin), a Holocaust survivor. At the shiva, Jonah meets Meyer Offerman (Pacino), a wealthy philanthropist and fellow survivor who happens to be leading a ragtag team of experts — some Jewish, some more secular — determined to root out and quash the Nazi menace.

At the same time, FBI agent Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton) is working a murder investigation tied to the Nazi conspiracy, which involves the politically powerful Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker), sociopathic Travis (Greg Austin) and a mysterious figure played by the great Lena Olin. What are these underground Nazis after? Global domination. These are Nazis we're dealing with.

The tone of Hunters (created by David Weil) is causing troubles for Amazon, which began by promoting it as a serious-minded "based on real events"-style drama in the vein of the Nazi-hunting HBO film Murderers Among Us: The Simon Wiesenthal Story, which a full generation of Jews watched in Sunday school. That's probably why Twitter has gotten such a kick out of chiding Pacino's accent, which probably wouldn't fit in a gritty, serious drama.

Instead, Hunters is more aptly a genre pastiche I can only call "Jewsploitation." Probably there will be an instinct to compare the show to Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, as its take on Jewish vengeance is more escapist and cathartic than the morally corrosive approach of Munich. But I think the reality is that Weil and early directors, including Alfonso Gomez-Rejon and Wayne Yip, have a collage of influences that only sometimes overlap. Yes, there are aggressive traces of blaxploitation (Tiffany Boone's Roxy Jones, with a dynamic afro and trash-talking attitude, is a key piece of the hunting team) and vague nods to martial arts films (though that would be a reductive way to approach Louis Ozawa's Joe) and a lot of The Dirty Dozen baked in.

But Weil's primary influences are geeky stuff. Jonah and his friends are introduced leaving a screening of Star Wars, where their conversation focuses on Darth Vader and whether or not his villainy is black and white. There's a moral relativity thing happening that you won't have any trouble picking up on, carrying over into debates about superheroes, particularly the idea that Batman and his form of vigilante justice are only one Robin away from tipping over to the dark side. On some level, what The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay was to excavating the intrinsic Jewishness of the Golden Age of comics, Hunters is to foregrounding the Jewishness and general diversity of the '70s Bronze Age of comics.

More than anything, what sets Hunters apart from the Tarantino fantasy is that its take on Judaism is not secular. It's a show with a steady background patter of Yiddish, where the matter of which family members are technically mourners at a shiva is a plot point and references to Midrash and other Jewish allegories are a big part of the reason each of the five opening episodes exceeds an hour, with the pilot running a solid 90 minutes.

With Pacino, obviously Italian but a veteran Semitic masquerader, leading the way, there's something exaggerated to even the more "authentic" Jewish turns — Lerman and co-stars Josh Radnor, Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek are all Members of the Tribe — that fits the exploitation genre. How does it play to audiences who don't recognize and empathize with the specifically Jewish aspects of the story? That's one of those things I can't tell. The ability to parse caricature from credibility isn't universal, and similar material has been fodder for misinterpretation and, worse, derision or disgust.

The show's treatment of Nazis and the Holocaust is another of the places I felt reservations. Auschwitz and Buchenwald are featured flashback locations and a decision has been made to feature atrocities, but fictional atrocities. So many horrifying and specifically inhuman real things were done to people in the Holocaust that it's a strange choice to create new ones. It doesn't divorce the Holocaust from reality and it doesn't trivialize it, but it certainly sensationalizes aspects of it in ways that left me feeling uncomfortable.

There's a lot of discomfort to Hunters, as it goes from action scenes so alive and full of verve that they can only be classified as "fun" to a nightmarish Holocaust sequence. That discomfort is intentional, but it isn't always illuminating and my sense is that sometimes it transforms the Nazis from actual monsters who did actual monstrous things into villains from a B-movie — something that makes them less substantive and less tangibly threatening even if Baker, Olin and Austin instill their characters with depth that isn't always in the scripts.

I think it may be the flatness of the Nazi characters and their predictable goal that makes it hard for the meditations on mercy and vengeance to go as deep as they want to. The fifth episode in particular, devolving into multiple scenes of interchangeable and somewhat glib torture, suffers from a monotonousness that none of the early episodes had.

Maybe Tarantino was able to get away with using actual tragedy as scaffolding for wild genre thrills because his approach to World War II was similar to his approach to slavery and the Manson family: something borderline frivolous and best understood in post-modern terms. I sense that Weil doesn't want Hunters to flirt with hollowness, so when it periodically does, it's worrisome instead of dismissible.

I'll be interested to see how the second half of the first season unfolds, if Hunters deepens and roots itself more clearly in a contemporary discourse in which anti-Semitism is an all-too-real specter. Maybe I'll get closer to being able to make a decisive, positive or negative evaluation and hopefully I'll remain eager to talk about the series.

Cast: Logan Lerman, Al Pacino, Tiffany Boone, Carol Kane, Saul Rubinek, Josh Radnor, Louis Ozawa, Jerrika Hinton, Dylan Baker, Lena Olin
Creator: David Weil
Premieres: Friday (Amazon)