Isaac Bettridge finds Hunters to be tonally conflicted but constantly entertaining.
Hunters is a show in the grips of a profound identity crisis.
For the most part, the show is exactly what it’s been advertised as: a kitschy, Inglorious Basterds meets The Nice Guys styled 70s romp featuring a colourful cast of archetypal characters hunting perhaps the most cartoonishly evil Nazis since Indiana Jones, and when it sticks to this style it’s remarkably entertaining. Every so often however, the show takes a hard turn and attempts to become a grim, hard-hitting Holocaust drama in the vein of Schindler’s List, complete with all-German dialogue and the obligatory black-and-white-except-for-plot-relevant-objects filter that that film made famous. It is not very good at doing this, and at certain points the show’s conflicting tones threaten to derail it completely.
Let’s start at the top. Set in 1977, Hunters is primarily the story of Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a down-and-out 20-something Jewish boy living with his Holocaust-survivor grandmother Ruth, who in classic Uncle Ben fashion is gunned down by a mysterious intruder within the first 20 minutes of episode one. His quest to avenge her death leads him to Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino, doing the broadest Yiddish accent this side of Fiddler on the Roof), a wealthy Jewish financier and an old friend of Ruth’s who reveals to him that his safta (Hebrew for grandmother, get ready for that to come up a lot) was gunned down by a former Nazi living in hiding in the States, and that this man was part of a massive network of secret Nazi infiltrators embedded in every level of American society who are plotting to initiate a second Holocaust and establish the Fourth Reich. Standing in their way are the Hunters, Offerman’s band of vigilantes which includes a whole host of interesting characters- a washed-up actor and master of disguise, a Japanese-American ‘forever soldier’ who never really came back from ‘Nam, a husband and wife team of code crackers etc. They don’t really get the screen time they deserve but nevertheless are great fun to watch as they unravel this conspiracy.
But in dealing with its villains, the show runs into tonal problems that become pretty glaring by the end.
Less well developed are the Nazis themselves, most of whom are broad caricatures too clichéd to be truly interesting or intimidating villains (take a shot every time you’re introduced to another evil Nazi doctor who did experiments on people in camps and you’ll be out cold by episode 3). There are exceptions to this: Dylan Baker puts in a delightfully hammy turn as a government infiltrator masquerading as a Southern good ol’ boy, whilst Greg Austin’s Travis, an American convert to the cause, is the only one who manages to be truly scary, with his chillingly calm fanaticism and unwavering belief in racial superiority being the closest the show gets to capturing the true evil of Nazism. But in dealing with its villains, the show runs into tonal problems that become pretty glaring by the end. The show clearly feels like it wants to be saying something important about race and privilege in America, with random mockumentary clips a la The Big Short appearing every so often (such as a fake game show entitled Why Does Everyone Hate The Jews?) to jam the point in your face, but it never really commits to it long enough for the bit to work, all too eager to cut back to something a bit more fun and light-hearted. There’s real potential for a show like this to make a pretty biting commentary about Nazism, fascism, American race relations and the ease at which powerful people can get away with horrible crimes, but it would take a show a bit more philosophically-minded than this one, so as a social commentary it doesn’t really hold up.
For the most part though, Hunters is worth checking out – despite being quite slow in parts, overall it’s a fun, original and engrossing show that sticks it to fascists at a time when they really need sticking to. It’s got an engaging central mystery to unravel, a number of shocking reveals and one of the most layered and positive depictions of Jewish faith and identity I’ve ever seen in mass media, featuring multiple Jewish main characters who represent different facets of the community and get to stick it to their historic oppressors. Writing for the Guardian, Jewish writer Charles Bramesco quotes Seth Rogen praising the Spielberg film Munich (‘every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. This flips it on its ear. We’re capping mother****ers’) to explain why the show’s revenge fantasy connected with him, and the fact that it did clearly shows that creator David Weir (who is, like Jonah himself, the grandson of a Holocaust survivor) understands his audience. It’s a unique and self-possessed show that I expect good things from in the future.