Did you love “Inglorious Basterds” and its pop-infused take on history? Did the bleak depiction of Holocaust atrocities in “Schindler’s List” horrify you? Do you prefer being introduced to new worlds or exciting characters through blank audience surrogates (think Eddie Redmayne in “My Week With Marilyn”)? If you answered yes to all three, “Hunters” might still feel like a hodgepodge of competing elements. The colorful cast jumps off the page when introduced. Yet, this oddball collection of Nazi hunters are unfortunately chained to a convoluted plot. Rather than pressing “next episode,” viewers are more likely to take a break and never return.
The high concept of “Hunters” jumps off the page. In 1977 New York City, a rich philanthropist and Holocaust survivor, Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), leads a group of “Hunters” who take out Nazis hoping to gain power in the United States.
Each member of the team comes equipped with their own special skill, as if one is choosing a player in a video game. Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany) is a former MI6 agent converted into a nun, though no less deadly. Though he didn’t cut it in Hollywood, failing actor Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor) excels as the master of disguise of the group. Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone) and Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Cangchien) represented Black Power activists and former Army militia within the Hunters. Fellow Holocaust survivors and gadget experts Mindy and Saul Marokowitz (Carol Kane and Saul Rubinek) round out the deadly, motley crew.
In a fun conceit, they’re introduced one by one in a candle lighting during a bat mitzvah. Unfortunately, this high energy introduction to the titular “Hunters” doesn’t come until eight minutes into the second episode. The first episode — a 90 minute ordeal — spends the entire time establishing Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young Jewish teen. He sells weed in order to make money to take care of his Grandma (Jeannie Berlin). It’s not until her death at the hands of Nazi thugs that Jonah becomes connected to the Hunters. Lerman is a talented actor who manages to make Jonah’s arc from innocent to killer interesting. But the character is thinly written and so much less interesting than any of the Hunters. Carol Kane kills Nazis and Josh Radnor wears funny shirts. That’s what sells the show, not the 90 minute version of “The Boys” with Holocaust footage.
That’s right. In between scenes of a gun-toting nun and Nazis literally eating horse shit, there are grueling depictions of ritualistic murders during the Holocaust. It’s hard not to be affected by these scenes. The show reveals the chessboard in the opening credits is a reference to a terrible Nazi game in the camps, where Jewish prisoners were used as pawns. A series so tied to the Jewish experience should be allowed to deal with the real horrors of the Holocaust. However, the tonal shifts never land. Instead, the emotional whiplash negates any of the gravitas intended by these sequences.
The performances meld the comical and dramatic better than the plot. What dawned on Al Pacino sometime in the past year that led to this late-career resurgence? Between this and “The Irishman,” Pacino has been on a roll, crafting memorable and richly detailed performances. Hearing that he would step into the role of Meyer Offerman, the Professor X or Danny Ocean of “The Hunters,” one could probably conjure up a picture of Pacino stuffing the performance with a lot of “hoo hah” and overcooked camp. Wisely, he underplays it. Meyer grounds what “The Hunters” are doing with heartfelt memories of the Holocaust radiating from his speech patterns and weary looks. By the end of the five episodes provided to critics, hints are dropped that there might be more to Meyer than meets the eye. Pacino’s underplayed performance leaves us wanting more.
Pacino may be the best, but there are no slouches in the rest of the cast. Among the Hunters, Boone and Radnor are the other stand outs. Boone wears Roxy’s Blaxploitation influences well as she gives interesting texture to her connection to the group. She inhabits the same crew as Radnor’s failed actor, who sells the delivery of his many fictitious acting gigs that never amounted to much. Plus, who can resist Carol Kane in any vehicle? All of these performances in a vacuum work, but they never seem to be in conversation with each other.
This far in, and we haven’t even gotten to the opposition. The villainous Nazis further camp up the show in a way that is both fun and deeply not in sync with the rest of the show. Lena Olin and Dylan Baker both operate at a 10, clearly never watching a daily. Dylan stars as Biff Simpson, a DC power player/covert agent, while Olin plays the Colonel, an enigmatic figure defined solely by accent. Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton), a closeted FBI agent, hunts all of them in her quest to solve a murder. This supposed murder case leads her into the underground war between Hunters and Nazis. It’s hard to devote much more attention to this subplot after everything else that has transpired.
One has to admire risks, even if they don’t always work out. “Hunters” put a lot of ingredients in the TV blender, but forgot to put the lid on as it chopped away. Unfortunately, the show’s mismatched mood feels much more memorable than any specific plot element. A great premise can get a series far, and “Hunters” sure has a great one. Yet, there’s not a huge part of me that wants to keep watching to see what happens next.