If Al Pacino is doing a TV series, it should be worth watching. Alas, many things that should be so are not. Pacino’s first series is Hunters, on Amazon Prime video, and the more you love Pacino, the more you’ll cringe. “The Americans, but with Nazis” seems to have been the idea. It came out more like “Marathon Man for idiots.”
Created by David Weil, who serves as showrunner with Nikki Toscano (though Jordan Peele, one of the executive producers, is mentioned more prominently than either of these in ads), Hunters is a case study in how an adolescent imagination shrunken and enfeebled by comic-book tropes can be disastrously misapplied when considering history’s gravest events. Pacino plays a Jewish Holocaust survivor turned Bruce Wayne-style mystery millionaire vigilante in 1977 New York City. Pacino’s Meyer Offerman assembles a Super Friends squad of spy/assassin/codebreaker/con artist/bank robber types with the aid of, erm, a yenta (Jewish matchmaker, not ordinarily associated with hired killing). Guided by Offerman, the hunters set to work tracking down surviving Nazi war criminals living in America under assumed names.
On the other side of the chess board, because the Nazis were noted for their enlightened views on sex roles, their surviving ranks are now led by a woman called “Frau Colonel” (Lena Olin) whose minions include a war criminal (Dylan Baker) posing as a Southern pol who works in Jimmy Carter’s State Department and a neo-Nazi assassin in his twenties (Greg Austin) who does exactly what the hunters do — sneak around in various disguises murdering people. Each episode finds the hunters tracking down one Special Guest Nazi to administer ironic torture and, often, painful execution. A death-camp classical-music lover gets subjected to ear-splitting levels of American rock and roll, for instance, and a Nazi propagandist gets forced to eat horse manure. All of the cat-and-mouse stuff is realized with maximum stupidity. Hint for any Third Reich officials trying to live quietly in the U.S.: If you happen to have any pictures of you shaking hands with the Fuehrer, try not to leave them lying around your condo. Also, try to cool it on the “Yep, I sure love Nazism!” speeches like the one delivered by a guy whose response to a remark about a child’s peanut allergy is to say, “Once upon a time we let nature reign, and it weeded out the sick and the weak from our gene pool. It kept us pure.”
All of this is seen through the eyes of a new recruit to the team of hunters, a Jewish New York teen named Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman) whose grandmother, a survivor of the death camps, is linked to Pacino’s character and who is armed with a comic-book style golden dagger of justice. All of the bloodshed attracts the attention of Millie the FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton), a gay black woman who, it becomes evident within about ten seconds, is a Mary Sue in a pantsuit who has no character flaws whatsoever but is kindly and honorable and knows everything. (Randomly assigned to investigate a murder of a NASA employee, she turns out to have encyclopedic recall of everything that ever happened in the history of rocket science.) Millie is an illustration of how hack writers who don’t know how to construct interesting characters instead fall back on signaling that they are at least dedicated to “inclusiveness,” even when the institution they’re trying to depict is as noninclusive as the 1970s FBI. The inclusiveness fetish also explains why a specifically Jewish revenge story gets diluted into meaninglessness by being embodied by a team of hunters that includes a kickboxing black single mom (Tiffany Boone), an Asian-American Vietnam vet (Louis Ozawa), and a snarky British nun (Kate Mulvany). Also on the team of hunters are an alcoholic B-movie actor (Josh Radnor of How I Met Your Mother) and a married couple of codebreaking alter kockers (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane). This might be the first time we’ve ever seen Kane slamming a banana clip into a machine gun like Ma Barker.
Why is Meyer operating outside the law and making himself and everyone on his team liable for murder charges? After viewing the first five episodes of Hunters’s ten-episode debut season (each runs an hour, except for the 90-minute pilot), I still see no good reason. Meyer is a noted philanthropist who is said to be able to pull the strings of politicians (and manages effortlessly to free an associate from police custody after he is caught with what appears to be several pounds of heroin). It beggars belief that he couldn’t find anyone in the justice system to hear his exhaustively documented evidence about the war criminals he keeps tracking down. Yet he dispenses with the niceties and takes care of business himself. The series treats all such escapades not as moral tangles but instead as great escapist fun, with a silly comic-book tone that intermittently slips into larkish Dollar Tree-Tarantino moments such as a spoof of Seventies PSAs, a surf-guitar interlude, and lots of pop-culture-savvy quips.
Tarantino’s skill at filtering history through the sensibility of the drive-in movie is one that few imitators can approach. Here the tactic trivializes real-life Nazi hunters such as Simon Wiesenthal. Moreover, the many attempts in Hunters to drape itself in solemnity (via such episode titles as “The Mourner’s Kaddish” and references to ancient Jewish codes of retribution) are undercut by relentlessly cutesy comedy notions such as introducing killers as though they were joining a candle-lighting ceremony at a Bar Mitzvah party or having stoned teens slip into a fantasy dance number (“Stayin’ Alive,” which as of the summer of 1977 hadn’t been released yet). Weil and his writers desperately try to show they’re as hip as Tarantino in the chatter they write, such as a dimwit joke about Kramer vs. Kramer (which was still two years in the future) and an endless series of strained metaphors and similes. Lines like “about as titillating as the Mormon Kama Sutra,” “scared as an uncircumcised shlong at a mohel convention,” and “braver than a stewardess on a Palestinian-highjacked 747,” keep providing unfortunate reminders that this supposed thriller about a historic battle for vengeance has all the gravitas of a roomful of Delta House bros trying to make each other squirt Pabst Blue Ribbon out their noses.