This Hunters review contains no spoilers.
Twenty minutes into “In the Belly of the Whale,” the first episode of Amazon’s Nazi-hunting drama Hunters, the character responsible for committing one of the series’s most gruesome and unapologetic acts of violence explains why he isn’t concerned about the consequences.
“You can get away with anything in America.”
For a show depicting an alternate history in which hundreds (if not thousands) of Nazi officials and affiliates have survived World War II and secretly infiltrated the United States government and American society at large, and a much smaller but equally secret band of Jewish Nazi hunters are picking them off one by one–this very well may be its most subtle and sophisticated bit of commentary. In fact, this line may actually be the only one throughout the show’s 10-episode run. It’s difficult to know for sure, as Amazon only made the first five episodes available for review, but judging by the sheer bluntness and repetition of just about everything else that Hunters has to offer, I suspect I’m not far off the mark.
Before I can explain why I think this is the case, let’s skim the surface of what Hunters claims to be. Billed as a grindhouse-esque revenge thriller, creator David Weil and executive producer Jordan Peele’s new series begins with Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a Jewish teenager who lives with his grandmother in 1970s Brooklyn. After a shrouded figure shoots and kills Jonah’s grandmother in her own home, Jonah is summarily introduced to Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), a wealthy benefactor who not only knew the kid’s murdered grandmother but also what she was really up to–hunting down and killing Nazis.
Specifically, she did this with Offerman and a diverse and only-possible-in-an-alternative-history team of assassins, actors, and con artists. Kate Mulvaney, Tiffany Boone, Carol Kane, Saul Rubinek, Josh Radnor, and Louis Ozawa Changchien bring the titular team to life, albeit in bits and pieces. For despite rounding out the very group of vigilantes on which the series is supposedly centered, they’re only the supporting cast. The real meat of this primary narrative are Jonah and Offerman.
Then again, Hunters is not only painfully blatant in its attempts to vilify Nazism and punish all who would proclaim its triumphs, but it is also rife with the all-too-familiar problem of too much story. Ever since the advent of Netflix’s House of Cards, original streaming programming has suffered from a lack of commercial and broadcast-driven time constraints. In other words, the majority of it is too damn long. And Hunters is no exception. (“In the Belly of the Whale” is a whopping 90 minutes in length. The second episode, “The Mourner’s Kaddish,” drops about half an hour, but on average, the episodes screened are longer than not.)
Hence its reliance on B and C subplots involving a young, up-and-coming “fixer” who does the dirty work for the secret Nazis pulling the strings, a young FBI agent’s investigation of one of the murders committed by the Hunters, and many, many more. This is where additional supporting cast members like Jerrika Hinton, Greg Austin, Dylan Baker, and Lena Olin enter the picture, and despite their not having much to do, they all shine whenever given the chance.
The problem here is one of abundance. Hunters is simply trying to do too many things at once with its premise, which–at least as it was originally advertised by Amazon–is simply about WWII’s secret continuation on American soil in the 1970s. Well, it is about that, but Weil and Peele are also trying to shove the grindhouse aesthetic, common B-movie tropes, numerous spins on blaxploitation films, and more into an otherwise small and simple frame. And it really, really doesn’t work.
When the Hunters perform one of their tasks, which usually combines investigation and espionage with enacting the vengeful will of the “six million customers” Offerman claims to work for, the true promise of the series reveals itself. This is especially true of a sequence in “The Mourner’s Kaddish,” in which a target is simultaneously interrogated and reminded of the horrifying cruel and violent things he did during the war. It’s enough to turn even the most anti-violence pacifist against these villains and, right when the Hunters go to work, cheer on the action.
Which brings me back to that line: “You can get away with anything in America.”
It’s a cynical thing to say, though, considering the character who says it (and what they do before saying it), it makes sense. What’s more, the real-world context in which Hunters is arriving also seems primed to witness such a gratifying, gratuitous, and ghastly display of Quentin Tarantino and Eli Roth-esque torture porn. Actual neo-Nazis like the white supremacist Richard Spencer, a man who was infamously punched in the face outside of President Donald Trump’s inauguration and turned into a meme, exist. They’re not just lurking in the comments or on the timeline. They’re real, they’re out there, and simply ignoring them isn’t going to do anything to lessen their growing influence.
But is transforming a viral moment lasting mere seconds (and the egregiously long discourse in birthed) into a full season of television worth it? Does it even work? Frankly, aside from a few scant moments of clarity and honesty, the answer is generally “no.” So much so that it seems you really can get away with anything in America–including making a show like Hunters.
Hunters premieres Friday, February 21 on Amazon Prime.