In the UK: Available on Amazon
On the whole, you don’t get a lot of Jewish TV. You certainly get Jews on TV. Israel, of course, is currently sending us plenty of fine programmes it’s made itself, too. But there’s not really a lot of Jewish TV – TV’s that’s concerned purely with Jewish concerns, that’s packed almost exclusively with Jewish heroes and that’s self-conscious and explicit about that, without apology. That in and of itself makes Amazon’s Hunters almost unique.
You also don’t get a lot of Quentin Tarantino TV. Sure, he has been known to cross the movie/TV divide to work on the occasional episode of CSI, and there is the occasional imitator. However, there’s not much of both categories that really captures Tarantino’s love of pulp fiction, elaborate dialogue and genre-transformation. And again, that in and of itself makes Amazon’s Hunters almost unique.
Because Hunters is probably the closest you’ll ever get – short of Quentin Tarantino himself developing a TV spin-off of Inglourious Basterds – to a Jewish Quentin Tarantino TV series. Set in 1970s New York, it sees Logan Lerman (Percy Jackson) playing a stupidly bright Jewish boy who lives with his grandmother (or ‘safta’ in Hewbrew). Harvard and MIT have offered him places, but he wants to stay with his safta and look after her.
However, one night, in what seems like an ordinary burglary, his safta – who survived the Holocaust no less – is murdered, setting Lerman on the path of vengeance. But it’s not long until no lesser person than Al Pacino turns up and reveals that his safta was actually killed by Nazis. Because they are among us – and they want to start a Fourth Reich.
So why doesn’t Lerman join his top squad of elite Nazi hunters and stop them before they succeed?
Hunters is a gloriously pulpy, Tarantino-esque affair that it would be hard to imagine Tarantino himself bettering. It’s a long chalk from perfect and it suffers from as many faults and excesses as Tarantino’s own work, but it’s a heady combination of numerous ingredients that truly elevate it into something that’s no mere imitator.
It is two parts Jewish guilt, two parts Jewish fantasy to one part all out Jewish rage. Although the headline producer is Jordan Peele, this is largely the work of relatively newbie David Weil, inspired by his grandmother’s stories of being in the Unterlüß concentration camp. And there’s a fair old amount of guilt that the greatest generation had to go through all of that and that the current generation have largely forgotten it and don’t have to go through anything comparable themselves.
But it’s also Jewish fantasy, imagining a kick-arse group of Jews taking no prisoners in their fight against the Nazis. The squad Pacino assembles is straight out of 1970s exploitation cinema and calls back to Tarantino’s Deadly Viper Assassination Squad, with a fighting nun with a British dodgy accent (Kate Mulvany), a Foxy Brown chick (Tiffany Boone), a Once Upon a Time in Hollywood actor (Josh Radnor) and a Bruce Lee guy (Louis Ozawa).
Early episodes alternate between fantasy and guilt, as the show has the superhero-obsessed Lerman imagining everything to be out of the movie or the comics – then learning about real-life and what happened in the concentration camps of Germany during the war. There’s elements of the supernatural but here, there’s a refreshing lack of Christian iconography – while there are copious references to religion and even visions of the dead, this is the Abrahamic God and the concerns are of those of the Old Testament and the Torah.
Natural Born Killers
Here, it must be emphasised, the show becomes much more serious than Tarantino ever is, highlighting some of the worst of the worst and never playing it for yucks or because it feels violence is cool. But it’s also very happy to use all the tricks in the Tarantino toolkit, with animated sequences, fake TV shows and public information films, and massive changes to established history, with dialogue that’s initially a little banal but which becomes increasingly florid.
The show also doesn’t shrink from Nazi evil. While Dylan Baker’s secret Nazi senator and Lena Olin’s ‘colonel’ are both somewhat cartoonish, they both do some really quite nasty things. These aren’t cannon-fodder Nazis dispatched with a couple of bullets, but fierce, smart, dangerous murderers.
Indeed, the main Nazi thug, Greg Austin (Class, Mr Selfridge), is a genuinely terrifying, smiling, racist, sociopath with a gift for monologuing that would give Samuel L Jackson, Michael Madsen and David Carradine a run for their money.
The show never forgets its pulpy focus, but sometimes, it can get distracted. Certainly, around the third to fifth of the show’s ten episodes, it becomes a more regular thriller, something closer to what you might expect a show about Nazi hunters to be. Yet it often self-consciously foregrounds what it’s doing – when Olin hears that a gay, black, female FBI agent (Jerrika Hinton) is investigating the Nazis, her response is: “What is this? Opposite day?”
However, the show does sometimes reveal that final part of the mixture: Jewish rage. This is a show that’s clearly angry at both anti-semitism and tolerance of anti-semitism. As far as it’s concerned, any compromise with racists (especially Nazis) makes you as bad as they are. It’s a blind rage that takes in not just Operation Paperclip, but even the likes of Simon Wiesenthal (Judd Hirsch in possibly his best ever performance), Wernher von Braun and Jimmy Carter, who thanks to that Tarantino-esque disregard for history, become anything from unwitting dupes to outright co-conspirators. Even the audience gets a stern talking to at one point.
But it does cool down again, constantly debating the ethics of what it’s doing with itself at least, even if other, non-Jewish voices are ignored. And by the end, the show does have some downright marvellous fun, revealing some great twists that explain lots of niggling things, from the dodgy accents all the way through to the grand masterplan itself. And yes, it does go there.
Reservoir Straw Dogs
Hunters is ultimately its own thing – a marvellous bit of silliness with a serious heart that shifts the audience’s viewpoint on matters both ancient and current. It’s fun and thought-provoking, daring and challenging. It’s perhaps a little too anachronistic and a little too obsessed with comics and parallels with comics for its own good, and its rage sometimes takes it places it shouldn’t, but it all serves the story.
Plus it’s got Al Pacino in it. And not merely for a couple of episodes of cameos and then done – he’s in a lot.
All in all, one of the few Amazon originals that I would recommend watching – and could rewatch.