Nazis are supposed to be an easy target. Whatever their modern-day relevance, that’s the real draw of revisiting the Third Reich more than half a century after its end: With the added benefit of hindsight, racist mass murder is as black-and-white as black-and-white gets. And when directed at the perpetrators of the Holocaust, audiences can watch acts of operatic violence unburdened by empathy or the nagging suspicion that us Americans might be the bad guys. The 21st century stubbornly resists neat solutions, even when totalitarianism is staring us in the face. The middle of the 20th century, on the other hand? We know exactly how to feel about that.
Despite such favorable conditions, though, Amazon Prime’s Hunters insists on making things hard. Created by David Weil and produced by Jordan Peele’s Monkeypaw, the new series has the kind of punchy premise seemingly generated for a “That’s it. That’s the tweet.” meme. Al Pacino killing Nazis—that’s it. That’s the show. What could go wrong?
Of course, Hunters’ premise is so crowd-pleasing it’s far from the first to capitalize on the appeal. An R-rated pulpfest that freely mixes references from exploitation films, comic books, and assorted bits of low culture, Hunters fits into the expansive shadow of Quentin Tarantino with plenty of breathing room to spare. The setup—a ragtag crew of underdogs with a charismatic leader track down war criminals—is borrowed from Inglourious Basterds; the late-’70s setting is closer to Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood, where Pacino also appears as straight-talking agent Marvin Schwarz (pronounced Schwarzzzsssszzzssszzz). Nor is Hunters the first alternate-history tale of white supremacy in America to land on TV this year. (Paired with The Man in the High Castle, it’s not even the only Nazi-related counterfactual to air on Amazon this decade.)
Hunters posits that, 30 years after the end of World War II, thousands of former Nazi officers, doctors, and propagandists are still at large in America, indoctrinating their descendants, infiltrating the halls of power, and plotting the restoration of their global regime. Because the American establishment itself is corrupted, and was arguably complicit all along, Pacino’s Auschwitz survivor–turned–millionaire Meyer Offerman takes matters into his own hands. (Starting with his Hollywood cameo, continuing through his Oscar-nominated turn in The Irishman, and culminating in his first series-regular role in a television series, the 79-year-old actor has had an eight-month stretch that would exhaust a man half his age.) Swap the ’70s for the present day and Nazis for the KKK, their American counterparts, and you essentially have Watchmen, the Damon Lindelof–conceived HBO series that shocked and delighted last year. But there are also odder, more specific points of overlap: a black female law enforcement officer, here FBI agent Millie Morris (Jerrika Hinton), with a misplaced faith in institutions; a vigilante in a nun costume straight out of a B-movie.
Placing itself alongside such contemporaries, Hunters starts with a built-in disadvantage. Tarantino is an undisputed master who synthesized decades of moviegoing into a modern vernacular; Watchmen dared to confront the prejudice woven into the fabric of American society. Hunters’ antecedents also comment on and engage with the influences Hunters itself uses merely for aesthetics. Working class outer-borough teen Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), conscripted into Meyer’s scheme after the murder of his grandmother Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), has Peter Parker written all over him, a comparison Hunters immediately makes explicit; Jonah derisively refers to Meyer as “Professor X,” while Meyer calls the Torah “the original comic book.” But where Watchmen explored superhero mythology’s toxic consequences and Basterds celebrated cinema as a means to assert control of a narrative, Hunters lets its references simply lie there. The show isn’t trying to say anything about these concepts, only deploy them for maximum effect—a convenient metaphor for its treatment of larger themes like retribution and justice. Too often, Hunters tries to be Inglourious Basterds but lands somewhere in the vicinity of Jojo Rabbit.
Hunters is at its most enjoyable when it leans into its own lack of depth. “This is not murder, this is mitzvah” is just a slice from the deli platter of ham Pacino is serving up. Meyer introduces himself to Jonah by declaring that “in a world of diarrhea and constipation, it’s OK to be a normal piece of shit sometimes”; many lines appear to be in a competition for his trademark catchphrase, though the likely winner is “Living well is not the best revenge. You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.” Episodes frequently slip into showy gimmicks to deliver exposition, a device as entertaining here as it was in The Big Short or Euphoria. Members of the crew—Afro-sporting ass-kicker Roxy Jones, grizzled Vietnam vet Joe Mizushima—are introduced one by one at a fake bat mitzvah; actor Lonny Flash delivers a pseudo PSA on how to spot a secret Nazi. The finest performance belongs to Dylan Baker, who makes sawdust of the surrounding scenery as a Nazi turned Southern-fried undersecretary of state.
Silliness is where the show truly sings. It stumbles when it strains for something more grounded. Coupling a coming-of-age story to a band-of-outlaws romp is in keeping with Hunters’ comic book motif, but Jonah proves unnecessary as an audience surrogate. More than that, he’s unconvincing as an emotional anchor, his entire motivation resting on a clumsily drawn bond with Ruth. Jonah’s short-lived hand-wringing over Meyer’s violent methods rings hollow from the grandson of a survivor; his crass banter with charmingly nicknamed friends “Cheeks” (Henry Hunter Hall) and “Bootyhole” (Caleb Emery) is much less endearing than Hunters seems to think it is. Worse still are a series of flashbacks following Meyer’s and Jonah’s grandmothers during their time in the camps. As anyone who’s ever had to sit through Life Is Beautiful in AP Euro can tell you, Holocaust stories can tend toward mawkishness, never more so than when they’re trying to squeeze a star-crossed romance in between silly stunts.
Speaking as a Jew, humor is a foundational coping mechanism of our culture. It’s not blasphemous to take a tongue-in-cheek approach to inherited trauma; it’s a way to sublimate our sorrow into acid, not just rage. There’s a reason Baker makes for a far better villain than his side’s enforcer, a veritable bingo card of bad guy clichés (menacing monologue, B-9; maniacal laughter, O-5), or why Meyer finding his recruits through a matchmaker (“you are the Jewish world’s fixer”) is such a perfect detail. It’s this insouciance that feels truly defiant of the fear and stigma we were fortunate to survive as a people, even if millions of individuals didn’t. When Hunters honors this legacy and sticks to the age-old satisfaction of Hammurabi’s code, it’s great—if trivial—fun. When it tries for grand proclamations on righting wrongs or the ethics of war, you start counting down the minutes until the next spurt of blood.