The Nazis seen here, in 1977 America, are also all over the place, where you least expect them (and also where you do). From the show’s opening scene — in which a Carter administration policy adviser (Dylan Baker) executes his family and neighbors at a backyard picnic in Chevy Chase rather than have his Nazi past exposed — viewers begin to understand that a vast network of thousands of Nazis, old and young, have infiltrated the halls of power and are biding their time while their female Fuhrer-surrogate (Lena Olin) plans a terrorist attack in the name of the Fourth Reich.
On the one hand, “Hunters” seems (and plays) like pulp fantasy. On that pesky other hand, here in 2020, there have been shootings in synagogues and a rise in anti-Semitic speech and hate crimes. Because even the most self-evident truths have gone blurry, “Hunters” can sometimes feel powered by contemporary outrage.
But the show, created by David Weil (with “Get Out” and “Twilight Zone’s” Jordan Peele as an enthusiastic executive producer), also struggles to find a sure footing between two disparate tonal tracks. Quite a bit of “Hunters” dwells in that vividly imaginative space suggested by Quentin Tarantino’s film “Inglourious Basterds” (and more recently, Taika Waititi’s “Jojo Rabbit”), in which Hitler’s lingering reach is converted into a campy menace and battled back with physical skills, cunning espionage and assorted heavily armed hokey-ness.
At the same time, “Hunters” frequently flashes back to the Holocaust itself, where a younger version of Pacino’s character, Meyer Offerman, survives Nazi torture and begins to conceive of a lasting revenge. In these scenes, the mood dial switches to a “Schindler’s List” mode in intensity and horror. Well into the 10 episodes (five of which were made available for this review), you’ll have one scene where disco kids shimmy to the Bee Gees on the Coney Island boardwalk, and then, in another scene set 35 years earlier, it’s point-blank executions at Auschwitz.
The story focuses on Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), a young Brooklyn man who works in a comic-book store and hustles drugs to support himself and his safta (grandmother), Ruth (Jeannie Berlin), a Holocaust survivor and Jonah’s only relative. A nighttime intruder shoots and kills Ruth in her easy chair, leading a grief-stricken Jonah to investigate the murder, which leads him to Offerman, who explains, eventually, that Ruth was one of his best Nazi hunters.
We follow Jonah’s slow initiation into Offerman’s justice league, members of which include a tough-talking nun, Sister Harriet (Kate Mulvany); a black-power activist, Roxy Jones (Tiffany Boone); a washed-up actor, Lonny Flash (Josh Radnor); a Vietnam vet, Joe Torrance (Louis Ozawa Changchien); and Murray and Mindy Markowitz (Saul Rubinek and Carol Kane), a pair of grandparents who are also Holocaust survivors.
The actors often seem to be working from different notes. As Jonah, Lerman has to juggle deep grief, sidekick naivete, and an astonishment at the violence Offerman and company employ when they capture a Nazi. “The Talmud is wrong,” Offerman explains to Jonah. “Living well is not the best revenge. You know what the best revenge is? Revenge.”
For all his wisdom and self-made wealth, Pacino’s character is surprisingly one-note, more of a presence than a marquee attraction; everyone else, including Olin as “the Colonel,” is at risk of lapsing into caricature. The two most interesting and most realized characters are an FBI agent, Millie Malone (Jerrika Hinton), who investigates the death of a NASA employee (someone gassed her in her bathroom shower stall) and slowly discovers the Nazi conspiracy; and a young, white-supremacist assassin, Travis Leich (Greg Austin), whose bloodlust exceeds the coded directives given to him.
With so many plates spinning, it’s easy for the writers and actors to lose track of what kind of show they’re making. “Hunters” treats its 1970s Nazis more like vampires than war criminals — friendly monsters who reveal themselves only when backed into a corner: an old lady watching game shows in her Florida condo; a doddering toyshop owner in Manhattan; a bank president.
This is perhaps the most effective takeaway “Hunters” has to offer, the unsettling notion that the worst among us hide in plain sight, or, in this case, could even be infiltrating Offerman’s team. Somewhere in Episode 5, there are signs that the show might be hunting for more than just war criminals — something deeper within the human condition. That pursuit gets more difficult when morality becomes a moving target.
Hunters (10 episodes) begins streaming Friday on Amazon Prime. (Disclosure: Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)