The reason to watch Amazon’s ultraviolent action series Hunters is Al Pacino. In fact, given how cobbled together the rest of the show feels, I seriously doubt Hunters would be debuting tonight if Pacino were not in the lead role. I realize we live in an anything-goes streaming world, and yes, I do see Jordan Peele’s name at the top of the credits, but it’s hard to imagine Amazon paying for a 60-second Super Bowl ad to promote this gory alternate history about Nazi fugitives in the 1970s without the participation of the man who defined that decade with his acting.
Hunters — which was created not by Peele but a young actor named David Weil — imagines thousands of escaped officers of the Third Reich descending on America to launch a Fourth Reich. Aided by a new generation of neo-Nazis, their plan marches along because nobody in D.C. is willing to lift a finger to stop them. That is, until a group of self-appointed vigilantes come to the rescue, a ragtag bunch of misfits led by shadowy financier… Al Pacino!
If this sounds like something torn out of a Marvel comic, well, that’s the point. “My grandmother was a Holocaust survivor and she would tell me stories about her time during the war,” Weil said last month at the TCA winter press tour. “As a young kid, five, six years old, hearing those stories, they felt like the stuff of comic books and superheroes.” Hunters, Weil explained, is meant “to create a sense of catharsis and wish fulfillment for a young Jewish kid growing up on Long Island who wanted to see superheroes who looked like him on screen.”
Several critics have detected a strong Quentin Tarantino influence on Weil, who hadn’t had a TV writing credit until Hunters. Obviously, Inglorious Basterds was also an alternate history revenge fantasy against Nazis, and Hunters’ occasional lurches into comic-book mode play out like homages to Tarantino. For instance, a fantasy sequence in episode two introduces Pacino’s crew of killers as candle-lighters in a bat mitzvah. As each one steps out to light the menorah, they pause to preen before a graphically ornate splash page that lists their attributes and superhero handles (“Mindy and Murray — A Couple of Chabad-Asses”).
But it’s the way all these tropes are piled high on two slices of historical fiction and drenched in gobs of red sauce that makes Hunters both visually appealing and rather unappetizing.
Pacino plays Meyer Offerman, a wealthy Holocaust survivor living in New York in the 1970s. He befriends Jonah (Logan Lerman), a geeky kid in Brooklyn who — surprise! — loves comic books. When Jonah's Nana, a Holocaust survivor, suddenly dies, Offerman comes into his life and informs him of a vast conspiracy to bring Nazism back to power in the good old U.S. of A. In time, Jonah learns about the crew Meyer has assembled to fight the evil.
There are a lot of moving parts in the 90-minute pilot, too many parts and not enough Al Pacino. That’s the irony of Hunters — gifted with the services of a singular actor who helped get this thing greenlighted, they sideline him for huge chunks of the show. It’s as though Amazon, Peele, and Weil didn’t really think an actor who turns 80 this year could credibly carry a bloody action series in which aging Nazis get snuffed out one at a time.
There is a scene — I won’t spoil it by saying where or when — in which Meyer gets to off a Nazi by impaling him. It’s great. In fact, it’s the best thing I saw in two and a half hours of watching Hunters, even if I could see the kill shot coming a mile away because the whole scene is a trope.
Unfortunately, much of the show turns on the oddball killers Meyer has surrounded himself with, and the surprisingly spry evildoers they’re charged with dispatching. To be sure, there is solid acting on the dark side by Dylan Baker, who plays a former concentration-camp guard, and Greg Austin as a next-gen Nazi who’s a linchpin in the Fourth Reich conspiracy that’s led by a female “colonel” (Lena Olin). But the Nazi side of Hunters is driven by a creative decision that I find questionable and which, along with the relentless thrum of torture and bloodshed, finally drove me away from this show.
There are three flashbacks to the concentration camps in the first two episodes. In one, a group of Jewish prisoners defy a Nazi officer by playing “Hava Nagila” instead of Wagner. In the second, a sadistic commandant plays a game of Buchenwald Idol with 10 contestants singing along to a phonograph. As the game proceeds, those who can’t carry the tune are carried off until there is a sole survivor. And in the third, yet another sadist orders prisoners out to a field to play a game of chess in which they are the pieces, and as each one is eliminated… well, you know.
Did anything like these three incidents happen in real life? Not that I know of. And it underscores what is most troubling about Hunters. It's hard enough to get kids to care about this history without distorting it through a pop-culture lens. The real enemy today is ignorance and indifference (e.g., the popularity of a beer pong game named Nazis v. Jews). Substituting fake history for the horrific real history of the Holocaust isn't just tonally wrong, it trivializes what really did go down in those camps.
White nationalism is real, and creatives are right to respond to the threat by all means necessary, but Hunters compares unfavorably with David Simon’s upcoming HBO adaptation of Philip Roth’s The Plot Against America. Simon grasps — as Weil and Peele do not — that hate isn’t something that shows up at your pool party and mercilessly murders all the good, decent people in broad daylight. It’s something that can fester for years, even in good and decent people, before someone gives it permission to come out.
Hunters is now streaming on Amazon Prime.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.