Amazon's Bloody, Controversial 'Hunters' Is More Than Just an 'Inglorious Basterds' Ripoff
Over the past 10 years, the second golden age of TV, audiences have flocked to the zombie-themed tales of the still-shambling The Walking Dead and soaked up all the dragon-filled glory of Game of Thrones, alongside much less gory fare. But it's a new decade, and with it has come a new series filled with pop-culture nods, ultra-violent murders, a cavalcade of bloody vengeance, and a surprising amount of heart. Oh, and Nazis. There's a buttload of Nazis.
We're talking, of course, about Amazon's new grindhouse-style series, Hunters, which dropped its first season to the streamer on Friday, February 21. The program comes from first-time show creator David Weil -- get used to hearing his name as he just signed a massive development deal with Amazon -- is co-executive produced by Academy Award-winner Jordan Peele, and inspired Al Pacino to take the leap from the upper echelons of big-screen cinema to the small-screen realm. And given its premise, which finds Pacino's Holocaust survivor, Meyer Offerman, leading the charge in a scenario fitting for a Quentin Tarantino flick, as he puts together a rag-tag crew reminiscent of, say, a Jewish A-Team, in order to track down and murder World War II Nazis hiding out in 1970s America, the whole thing feels like a no-brainer for today's ever-expanding content landscape.
And yet, Hunters, like The Walking Dead before it, feels like a risk. There was a time when hordes of the undead shambling across our TV screens felt like an impossibility, just a horror fan's unfulfilled pipe dream. The Nazis in Hunters aren't brain-hungry fiends; they're actually much worse. The show portrays them, at times, through a heightened lens, to really drive home the point that Nazis -- through all the historical, and fictionalized, perspectives we've gotten over the years -- are truly the worst kind of monsters.
But, given the style and substance featured in these first 10 episodes, it's easy to see how some viewers, and networks alike, may shy away from such grim, bloody, over-the-top content like Hunters. Remember, it took three years for The Walking Dead to become a bonafide hit.
Through all the creative (and gruesome) kills and retro callbacks featured throughout the first season, Hunters brings with it a fair share of authenticity and heart which helps to keep the show grounded. And at the center of it all is 19-year-old Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a comic book fan who's faced with a tragedy that rocks his world, leading him to the discovery of some deep-seated truths that are hard for him to handle.
When he witnesses his grandmother Ruth's (Jeannie Berlin) murder -- he calls her safta, the Heberw word for grandmother -- Jonah goes down a rabbit hole of sorts, making it his mission to find her killer and get his revenge. This choice leads him to learn that his lovely grandmother led a secret vigilante life that she did her best to keep separate from her home life with her grandson.
When Meyer Offerman comes into the picture, Jonah's world gets turned upside down. Pacino delivers an uncharacteristically subdued performance as the Holocaust survivor and old friend of Jonah's grandmother. And it works quite well here, even if his Yiddish accent feels a bit put-on. Through all the exposition and set up that unfolds in the first 90-minute episode, the closing scene is where Meyer fully commits to taking Jonah under his wing, introducing him to the rest of his Nazi-killing team.
These inglorious hunters include insufferable actor/master of disguise, Lonny Flash (Josh Radner), former Mi6 agent and logistics expert, Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvaney), married couple/weapons experts Mindy and Murray Markowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek), lockpicking/counterfeiter/crime-scene clean-up aficionado, Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone), and the punch-happy Vietnam vet, Joe Mizuhshima (Louis Ozawa).
Looking through this roster, it's clear to see that not everyone in Meyer's team is actually a member of the tribe. But given their modus operandi of killing members of the Third Reich and getting retribution for the events of the Holocaust, which transpired roughly 30 years prior to when the show takes place -- and, considering that white supremacists could also be considered enemies of the British, Japanese, and black members of the group -- their team-up makes complete sense. The diversity is also nice, and since it is the late '70s we're dealing with, the Blaxsploitation and grindhouse style-notes mesh pretty well together -- most of the time, anyway.
This is the big issue many have had with Hunters. Maybe you can chock it up to the fact that grindhouse is a genre that hasn't really succeeded in a TV series format, thus far. There was Syfy's Blood Drive, a series that had promise, but put all its eggs in an over-stylized basket, where almost no attention was paid to establishing an emotional anchor to keep an audience watching. David Weil did his best to avoid that mistake, and he mostly succeeds, even though cycling through multiple genres and pop culture references in one episode can feel like a whirlwind at times. The 90-minute premiere moves at a slow-burn pace, moreso than the episodes that follow, but it establishes the gritty vibrancy of 1970s New York, as well as the bleak hopelessness of 1940s Germany while building out the story's emotional foundation -- one which is firmly rooted in both Jonah's devotion to his grandmother, and the lingering trauma of Adolf Hitler's terrorizing reign -- which all culminates as the jumping-off point for the events throughout the show.
Combine villainous characters like Lena Olin's Colonel, Dylan Baker's scenery-chewing politician Biff Simpson, and this Fourth Reich's newest cold-blooded (and American) killer, Travis (Greg Austin) with the tragic recollections of Nazi Germany, as told through flashbacks in the series, Hunters hopefully serves as a reminder to audiences that, even as heightened as things get on-screen, the drama that unfolds during these 10 episodes is inspired by an unrepentant hate that may feel out-of-reach, but in reality, is always right there beneath the surface.
As heightened and fictionalized as this take is, though, the show's subject matter is representative of a deep-seated trauma. And, given the multiple World War II storylines that play out in Adolf Hitler's notorious concentration camp, Auschwitz -- including a horrifying chess scene that features a live-sized board with Jewish prisoners being used by the Nazis as the game-pieces -- it was only a matter of time before the pushback began. In this instance, the Auschwitz Museum released a statement condemning the show's portrayal of the Holocaust experience as foolish, dangerous, and enabling future deniers of the atrocities that took place.
In turn, show creator David Weil addressed the situation, doing his best to address the growing controversy and clarify his reason for creating these scenes to begin with.
"Why did I decide to create the chess match scene instead of use a real incident of torture perpetrated by the Nazis? I didn’t want to take an actual person’s torture and show it," Weil tells Thrillist. "I didn’t want to borrow from someone’s true story in that way. This is not a documentary, it’s a dramatic narrative series. Our fictional characters -- Meyer, Ruth, Chava -- are present in this scene. And so I wanted to depict the kind of trauma that victims experienced in a representationally truthful, factual, symbolic, if not literal, way."
Weil's mission to remind people of the horrors that took place all those years ago not only pays respect to the Jews who lived through the terror, but also to the ones who did not. While Hunters is not, say, Schindler's List, even though it feels as if there's some aesthetic copycatting featured in a later episode, the program does tell some truths of the Jewish American experience while giving representation to other marginalized communities: there's a former Black Panther, a Japanese American, and a gay character all prominently featured in the series.
Underneath the deprecating humor, the in-your-face action scenes, and the show's suspenseful cat-and-mouse plot-points lies an authenticity in the way the show portrays Judaism and Jewish culture. We're not saying that other programs haven't done the same sort of work, but there's something about seeing the young, good-looking freedom fighters on a show like Man in the High Castle, or The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel's over-the-top 1950s caricatures that can come off a bit unrealistic. But the good guys in Hunters? They are your neighbors, your friends, your family. Smaller aesthetic details further bring the story to life like the show's depiction of the Jewish mourning process known as sitting shiva, or in Jonah's realization that no chicken noodle soup will ever match up to his grandmother's, or in the random minutiae featured in Meyer's home, or in Mindy and Murray's quirky relationship dynamic, and so on.
And then there's Logan Leman's performance as Jonah. His is the core story in Hunters. Is revenge really the best revenge? It's a question Jonah wrestles with throughout these episodes as he struggles with the eye-for-an-eye mentality of Meyer's crew. For Offerman, murdering Nazis is a mitzvah -- a commandment handed down by God. The punishment (let's be real here, it's torture) his team delves out ranges from the outrageous to the downright disgusting. Case in point: in the middle of the season, Meyer forces one of these captives to eat horse manure in order to get the information he's looking for.
To speak in Star Wars terms, Offerman is the Jedi master and Jonah -- who may very well be this story's Luke Skywalker -- is Meyer's reluctant Padawan. As he learns the vigilante ropes, he struggles to figure out just how complete or broken his moral compass might be. With each new detail learned about his grandmother, and each new lesson about the triumphs and tribulations his ancestors endured, Jonah is further faced with an identity crisis of sorts. Murder may be a commandment to Meyer, but as things unfold, the program reveals the mental and physical repercussions of killing another human -- no matter what side they're on, no matter how bad their war crimes were.
David Weil may be new to TV, but he's already leaving an impression. Whether Hunters gets more episodes or not (he apparently has a five-season plan in mind), he's already achieved his ultimate goal at paying homage to his own Safta, Sarah Weil. And while many may be inclined to call the show a Quentin Tarantino knock-off -- last we checked, the Once Upon a Time... in Hollywood director doesn't own the rights to killing Nazis on-screen -- the underlying story and street-level heroes featured throughout Hunters speaks to Weil's own experience growing up Jewish. Having your name next to the multiple Oscar-winner isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it's clear that Weil will need to put in the work if he wants to carve out his own niche in Hollywood.
When all is said and done, it's Hunters' personal ties to David Weil's life and his experience with Judaism and Jewish culture that truly sets the show apart. The series not only brings the ghosts of the past back, to hopefully educate viewers on a history that always has the risk of repeating, it props up the legacy of those who came before us. While Hunters sometimes struggles at maintaining the proper tonal balance, shifting quickly at times between grindhouse splatter-fest to over-the-top comedy to coming-of-age family drama to whatever Jonah is doing recreating a musical number from Saturday Night Fever on the boardwalk, Hunters follows through on its promise of giving the power back to the underdog, and a welcome sense of catharsis follows suit.
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