Despite having a non-Jewish actor in one of the lead Jewish roles, Hunters on Amazon Prime is exceedingly Jewish .
In Episode 2, the titular Hunters are introduced in a segment plucked straight from a modern-day bat mitzvah, where a random 13-year-old girl calls each of them up with a corny poem to light a candle during her candle lighting ceremony. It's a tradition that anybody who's had a bar or bat mitzvah — or somebody who's been to a lot of them — will understand fully. It's an almost-painful reminder of a horrifically awkward time in a lot of our lives, and it made me, a Jewish person who spent days crafting that very poem for her bat mitzvah, nostalgic.
It made me look at Hunters with different eyes. This is a show that is not only Jewish but understands modern-day Judaism whole-heartedly. I can see it in how a lot of the older Jewish characters tell series lead Jonah (Logan Lerman) that suffering is a part of our DNA, or how he's confronted with the rules of sitting Shiva in Episode 1 after his grandmother's untimely death at the hands of a Nazi.
Oh, right. These moments of conspicuous and joyous Jewishness are also interspersed with a plot about hunting down Nazis that have penetrated the U.S. after World War II and how maybe they're planning something diabolical. That's why the Hunters have to do some hunting. They're also often placed in parallel to flashbacks to concentration camps, where high-ranking Nazis commit atrocities like making prisoners sing in a deadly game of American Idol. There are also moments of levity where the prisoners fall in love with each other or play Hava Nagila at the risk of their own lives.
It's a roller coaster of emotions.
Bottom line: Hunters takes a while to get up and running, but when it does, it manages to be one of the best depictions of the modern Jewish experience seen on TV in a long time.
Let's back up a bit. The plot of Hunters, executive-produced by Jordan Peele's Monkeypaw Productions and created by first-time showrunner David Weil, tells the story of Jonah, a 19-year-old Jew living in New York who witnesses the death of his grandmother and vows to find her killer. We find out later in the pilot that she had been hunting a Nazi but the bastard got to her first. That's how Jonah starts working with the hunters, a group of seemingly-unrelated people with unique talents, led by a wealthy philanthropist named Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino).
There are two other parallel plots. One involves FBI agent Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton) who begins to investigate a mysterious death in Florida tied to the hunters and a potential Nazi conspiracy. The other involves the Nazis themselves, led by a mysterious figure called the Colonel (Lena Olin) and involving sociopathic killer Travis (Greg Austin) and a Nazi-turned-politician named Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker).
There's a lot going on here, and a variety of tones and emotions that go along with it all. At times the show is over-the-top and campy, pulling a lot of obvious inspirations from Blacksploitation and B-level action films of the 1970s with plenty of gore and visual pastiches. There are a number of hilarious fantasy sequences, such as the aforementioned candle lighting ceremony, that pull from all the best parts of shlock.
There are other times, however, where the show pulls in close on just two characters and wipes away the unrealistic grainy filters as they discuss death and the power of memory. They use this to describe the atrocities of the Holocaust, sometimes in great and unsettling detail, but also to convey smaller microaggressions Jewish people still face, especially as people seemingly start to forget the importance of the Holocaust around them. Characters keep reminding Jonah that "the war has been over for 30 years" to try and dissuade his and their anxieties about Nazis being a threat. Meyer dissapointingly tells Jonah "the only thing you know about the Holocaust is what you read in history books," thereby speaking to the audience about how there was so much more to the genocide of Jews, Roma, LGBTQ+, the disabled, and more during the Nazi regime.
There are definitely times where these two tonally clash. This is especially apparent watching Pacino do a bizarre and exaggerated accent to somehow convince the audience of his Jewishness, or when somebody cringingly states, "I wanted to mazel her tov" or makes a joke about gefilte fish. This is what makes watching the 90-minute pilot a chore. You don't know what the show is going to be, which makes a lot of the emotional whiplash confusing.
There are even more motifs that Weil and the other writers like to incorporate. Superhero comics play a huge role in how Jonah sees himself and others, but also seep into the dialogue of other characters. The hunters team is akin to a Justice League-style teamup as well, with each member possessing a specific skill that the others don't have. It's blatant how much the team wants you to compare the characters to the trials and tribulations of superheroes like Batman and Spider-Man. It's also interesting how they mention these two superheroes above others like Superman, who was created by two Jewish men, or Captain America, who in his very first cover punched Adolf Hitler (at least in the first five episodes provided to critics).
Then there's the "based on true events" tagline that Amazon's been pushing. Many of us have heard about Operation Paperclip, a completely real operation by the U.S. government to bring German scientists to America to work on a number of our top-secret programs. The most famous of these was probably Wernher von Braun, who not only helped design the V-2 rocket during the war, but then helped with the fledgling space program, which helped put us on the moon. There were also Nazi hunters like Simon Wiesenthal that independently tracked down Nazis following the war. Everything else about Hunters is largely fictitious, and even exaggerated for maximum trauma. Why go through the trouble of creating psyschopatic Nazi experiments akin to the Hannibal series for the show when there was plenty of real-life awful stuff happening in the camps?
Hunters doesn't lean into the kitsch until late in the pilot episode, and fully reveals itself in Episode 2, so audiences have to wait until then to decide if this is a show for them. However, once they get past a lot of setup and emotional juggling, the show becomes clear.
The proper way to describe Hunters is "Jewsploitation." Blacksploitation is about catharsis and power. It creates worlds where black people can kick ass and look good doing it. It was about creating representation for under-served audiences and power fantasies for those people to aspire to. Many of the best stars of the genre were like live-action superheroes in how they knew martial arts that could send people flying or wore tight, sleek uniforms. They kicked ass and looked good doing it.
Hunters is that but for Jewish people. Much in the same way that Inglorious Basterds created a revisionist historical scenario where Jews wiped out the top of the Third Reich with a movie screening, Hunters envisions a world where a Holocaust survivor puts together a team to take out Nazis in secret, and it's cathartic.
However, what's most compelling about Hunters is how it captures the Jewish experience. This in turn makes the shlock more effective, but more importantly, it gives the show meaning. Hunters has a point to make about how we remember the Holocaust and how we let racism and anti-Semitism slide. The more separated we get from WWII, the more we'll forget. The show takes great care to not only remind you of the real human cost of the Holocaust, but also how it affected Jews post-war. It shows how we're still feeling it to this day. That's more powerful than any gory action scene.
Where gore and history collide
Hunters takes a while to get up and running, but when it does, it manages to be one of the best depictions of the modern Jewish experience seen on TV in a long time. Plus, it's just a lot of fun.