If you’ve resisted comic book TV because the line between good and evil is just too obvious, because the moral spectrum has only superheroes at one end and world-domination-minded supervillains at the other, have I got a show for you.
Amazon’s “Hunters” is the kind of series that will challenge you — aesthetically, narratively, and morally. It’s a comic-book-styled drama, like the ubiquitous origin stories of Spiderman, Batman, and Superman, but it’s rooted in the real horror of the Holocaust and the double-edged sword that is violent vigilante vengeance.
Created by David Weil and executive produced by Jordan Peele, the show is audacious, tonally complex, not always in control of its message, visually arresting, and, particularly in its grim flashbacks to the brutalities and the courage in the death camps, moving. It will surely offend some, as it draws Nazis into a broad genre-tinged entertainment — but that bold move, part of the origin story of Golden Age superhero comic books themselves, as well as the conversations it will trigger, are part of the show’s power. I doubt anyone will watch “Hunters” — with its flashy “Bam!” and “Pow!” action sequences pushed up against the bottomless sorrows of the Holocaust — and shrug.
The story is set in a Technicolor-ish 1977 New York, where, it turns out, many Nazis are hiding in public with fake lives — US complicity in their presence here is one of the many themes embedded in “Hunters,” sometimes humorously — and they are actively planning a Fourth Reich. They include politically connected men and women with hyper-American names like Biff Simpson (played by the always effective, nefarious-faced Dylan Baker) as well as a nonsense-spouting young sociopath named Travis (Greg Austin) — arguably a nod to the white nationalists of today — who employs his deep-seated aggression in service of his Nazi bosses’ wishes. If “Hunters” is influenced by the pulpy stylings and dark comedy of the Coen brothers (and, even more, of Quentin Tarantino), then the Aryan-looking Travis is the ruthless Anton Chigurh of this piece.
Our young hero, Logan Lerman’s Jonah Heidelbaum, is an average Brooklyn 19-year-old who deals weed when he’s not geeking out with his two best friends on “Star Wars” and comic books. His life is upended when his beloved grandmother, a Holocaust survivor who raised him (memorably played by Jeannie Berlin), is murdered. He seeks out the killer, and events ultimately lead him to Al Pacino’s Meyer Offerman, a wealthy Holocaust survivor who knew Jonah’s grandmother in the camps and more recently. Turns out Meyer leads a small, eclectic band of Nazi-hunters — I kept thinking of them as the Mod Squad+ — each of whom has his or her own motivations for quashing the evil in their midst. They’re a colorful bunch, some more well-drawn than others, including Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor), an unbearably insecure has-been actor; Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany), a former British spy who is a nun; Mindy and Murray Markowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek), a married couple who are also survivors; and Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), a street-smart fighter who carries vestiges of Blaxploitation movies. Jonah wants in, but the gang is skeptical of his abilities.
Meyer is a well-dressed, paternal fellow who projects wisdom, strategy, and compassion as a leader — although rage bursts through at times, for example when he drives a knife through an enemy’s hand. “This is not murder,” he says when the gang kills a Nazi. “It’s a mitzvah.” I like Pacino in the role, and appreciate the decision not to make his performance larger and louder than life. Pacino restrained is like anyone else’s normal energy. He brings a lovely gentleness to the role, too, most evident in the fatherly attentions he gives to the confused, grieving, and newly mobilized Jonah. He sees generational wrath in the young man’s fury, and he fosters it.
Lerman is good enough if somewhat one-dimensional as Jonah, the code-breaking superhero of whom “Hunters” is, in some ways, the origin story. As our surrogate, he is easy to be with while the strange and vicious world of “Hunters” unfolds. He feels a deep need to fight the Nazis, but he is sensitive to the resulting carnage and torture — heavy scenes that try to be both disturbingly graphic and vicariously satisfying at the same time, since those who are being murdered have revolting pasts and were plotting to reconstruct a reign of terror in the future. As Jonah and we come to see, the moral universe of “Hunters” is complex, unsettling, thought-provoking.
One of the plot strands revolves around FBI agent Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton), who is working a case that’s linked to the Nazis, even though she doesn’t know it yet. When her investigation brings her to Jonah regarding the murder of his grandmother, she urges him to pursue only legal means of justice, but he is already gone, well on his mythic journey and under the sway of his new mentor, who at one point says: “The Talmud was wrong. Living well is not the best revenge. You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.”
There’s plenty to unpack in each episode of “Hunters,” only five of which were available for review (there are 10 in all). The leaps from the kitschy shag-carpeted world of bell-bottoms to the spare cruelties of the camps, and from action comedy to human tragedy, are a lot. The show is best consumed in smaller bites, rather than a binge. Seat belts recommended.
Starring: Al Pacino, Logan Lerman, Jerrika Hinton, Lena Olin, Saul Rubinek, Carol Kane, Josh Radnor, Kate Mulvany, Dylan Baker, Jeannie Berlin, Greg Austin, Tiffany Boone, Becky Ann Baker, James Le Gros
On: Amazon. Season one available on Friday.