The flaws of Amazon’s new action series Hunters are, by any fair concession, many and unsubtle. The show’s notion of wit leaves something to be desired, whether it’s one character going by the moniker “Bootyhole” or another cheekily saying he’d like to “mazel” a fetching woman’s “tov”. That’s of a piece with this very publication’s official review, in which writer Lucy Mangan dinged the pilot episode as “too cool and self-conscious for its own good”. It wants to be slick too badly to achieve the air of effortlessness required pull it off; a gimmicky sequence introduces a handful of the main cast by calling them up to light candles at a fantasy bar mitzvah, complete with corny one-liners conveying their legendary feats. Moreover, creator David Weil has already begun to field controversy over his extreme depiction of the Holocaust’s assorted horrors, with the Auschwitz Memorial Museum crying foul over the liberties taken with the facts.
And yet, for this critic, the show serves a baser and more visceral purpose not unrelated to the fast-and-looseness with which Weil plays the historical record. As an unabashed Jewish power fantasy, divorced from reality in pursuit of an emotional truth informed by the simmering resentments of the Holocaust, it provides a strong, constant catharsis. The show does its viewership the service of assembling a squad of Nazi-hunters who hate their marks with every fiber of their souls, and letting the folks at home share in the vicarious thrill of getting bloody justice. That the show goes so far over the top must surely be the point. Just as the Nazis in this corner of fiction skew far toward the outright villainy side of the “empathy for antagonists” spectrum, so too must their comeuppance be proportionately outsized. Consider it generational therapy, on a scale as massive as pop culture itself.
Upon the earliest announcement of the buzzy project’s development, the immediate point of comparison was Inglourious Basterds. Like Amazon’s hopeful new tentpole, Quentin Tarantino’s crowd-pleasing film gathered an elite crack squad of trigger-happy experts and sent them to wreak hell on the forces of the Third Reich. The most glaring quality separating them pertains to setting, with Tarantino diving right into the second world war while Hunters picks up in 1977, joining a coalition of survivors and the descendants carrying their torch. That’s not for nothing, either – though Tarantino attained his success by synthesizing his influences into something new and unmistakably original, Weil prefers to bottle at the source. He plops his story in the 70s because that was the heyday of the distinct breed of low-rent B-movies that he imitates without much alteration or tinkering.
The awkward portmanteau of “Nazisploitation” refers to this short-lived trend of films mining sensationalist thrills from the horrors of the concentration camps. Tarantino drew from war pictures such as The Dirty Dozen and The Guns of Navarone, but Weil prefers the later cinema that took their baton and ran with it all the way to giddy madness. In films like Ilsa, She-Wolf of the SS and Love Camp 7, sex and violence commingled in a stew of degradation as the Nazis conducted their sadistic experiments on their prisoners. Here, the kills were exaggerated to turn this expression of 20th-century angst into something celebratory instead of somber. While some felt that the Holocaust was a subject too serious for this blithe kind of treatment, others found a sorely needed venue to release their pent-up screams of approval.
Hunters takes this sick brand of pleasure one step closer to modernity by giving us Jonah (Logan Lerman) as a surrogate. He’s a mild-mannered young weed dealer living with his grandmother and part-timing at a comics shop, with little stake in the great clash between Jews and Nazis in hiding. (Or so he thinks.) Like the vast majority of modern viewers, he experiences his rage over the Holocaust secondhand. While the 70s pictures spoke directly to audiences with memories of war, Hunters gives those without the real experience a chance to feel empowered in a way Jewish men seldom do. Even as we’ve shuffled off the image of the ineffectual nebbish, we’ve still been typified as bookish and cerebral instead of masculine in the most conventional sense.
Hunters plays as one big, shameless corrective to decades of goys claiming vengeance on the Jewish community’s behalf. (As Aldo Raine, Brad Pitt may be a captivating presence, but he sure ain’t Semitic.) Whatever its missteps, the show heaps on the gratuitous satisfaction that comes with righteous name-taking and ass-kicking. For a people defined by resilience and deference, it’s a bracing change of pace. Though perhaps this entire essay could be disposed of, and replaced with the relevant Knocked Up clip in which Seth Rogen sings the praises of Steven Spielberg’s Munich: “Every movie with Jews, we’re the ones getting killed. This flips it on its ear. We’re capping motherfuckers!”