The Amazon series “Hunters,” created by David Weil, imagines that a band of German Nazi loyalists escaped prosecution for their crimes and infiltrated American society, and that the detection of them has fallen, in 1977, to a scrappy collection of vigilantes. Spectacularly misbegotten, the series, which employs frequent flashbacks to death camps, strives to gratify our thirst for justice by lingering on the torture of the villains, and to complicate our understanding of revenge by flinging around loose strands of philosophy. We are introduced to our young hero as he, flanked by chums, exits a first-run screening of “Star Wars,” puffs on a joint, and discourses on morality. “Vader doesn’t get up every day looking to destroy the galaxy, no—no! He gets up every morning believing he needs to save it,” he says, and proceeds to cite some ethically dubious deeds valorized within D.C. Comics. “The only difference between a hero and a villain is who sells more costumes on Halloween.”
This is Jonah Heidelbaum (Logan Lerman), an orphan raised by his grandmother, Ruth, who survived Auschwitz. Jonah is a period-piece cool kid, with a job at a comic-book shop and a side hustle selling weed. There’s a Patti Smith poster above his bed, Farrah Fawcett on the cover of his TV Guide, and many carefully chosen pop artifacts strewn about his room, along with correspondence bearing the letterheads of Harvard and Yale. We presume these to be acceptance letters unaccompanied by financial-aid offers. “You don’t think I wanna be at a Wasp college we can’t afford, actually making something of myself?” Jonah asks his bubbe, after she busts him with a knapsack full of pot, which he failed to sell to a floridly anti-Semitic peer. She insists that he is wasting his gifts, telling him, “You see things no one else can.” This foreshadows hokey moments in which, say, every eighth letter on a typewritten page will go luminous with special effects to relay Jonah’s native genius for cryptography.
Jonah witnesses Ruth’s murder at the hands of a shadowy intruder who escapes down a back alley. Parallels to the formative trauma of Bruce Wayne are swiftly drawn. Jonah settles under the wing of the successful Meyer Offerman (Al Pacino), with whom Ruth had been working, for a year or so, to ferret out the Nazis and administer thematically appropriate vengeance. (For instance, their team adjusts the plumbing in the bathroom of a onetime chemist in order to gas her in her shower.) The show is a pastiche of folktale and pop fantasy glued together with rudimentary meta-analysis, and Meyer soon talks to Jonah about the story of his whale-swallowed namesake. “You should read the Torah more,” Meyer says. “It is the original comic book.” “Hunters” wants to hit you over the head with a Ben Day-dot the size of a frying pan.
Pacino’s Offerman, with his large Yiddish accent, is almost a figure of fond caricature, and “Hunters” has no fear of corniness. The squad of Nazi-hunters, their vibe shamelessly appropriated from the grindhouse style of Quentin Tarantino, includes a Foxy Brown knockoff, a Bruce Lee stand-in, and a moustached ladies’ man in the “Anchorman” mold. (The third of these is foremost among the many characters who are saddled with underscoring the seventies-ness of the proceedings. Inspecting a restaurant where villains were suspected to rendezvous, he says, “This place is more exposed than the bathroom at Studio 54. Hard to believe Nazis were meeting here.”) Nonetheless, Pacino resists pushing his performance into a realm of gravel-throated kitsch. I want to suppose that his restraint is a function of his boredom.
While the hunters hunt, the Nazis scheme, and you sit back and detest them. Biff Simpson (Dylan Baker) has infiltrated the State Department, and he opens the series by putting a bullet in every head at a back-yard barbecue. To clean up the mess, he calls Travis Leich (Greg Austin), a young American devoted to the cause. Travis struts around oozing existential menace. The excesses of this character—who enters the show to the strains of “Mein Herr,” from “Cabaret,” and who bullies a black woman at a laundromat with a line about separating colors and whites—constitute the show’s great success at justifying its over-the-top tone.
All the while, there are those flashbacks to the death camps. “Hunters” skims over the most common atrocities to focus on baroque instances of sadism, as when one Nazi officer executes members of a chorus, one by one, for singing poorly during a performance piped live into the prison yard at Buchenwald. (In the America of “Hunters,” this Nazi becomes a big-time record producer; interrogating him, his pursuers tie him up in his home studio and play a Chuck Berry song at a volume that makes his ears literally bleed.) The mashup of pop fantasy and world history deadens the former and debases the latter. It doesn’t help that Jonah, in his grief, begins seeing visions of his grandmother as a young woman. At one point, Jonah and his pals smoke a joint at Coney Island, and the lightness of the moment is conveyed by a dance sequence set to the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive”; the moment is broken when he sees Ruth, in her prison stripes and yellow star, glumly standing near the Wonder Wheel. What I felt, in this moment, was an inkling of what it might have been like to see Jerry Lewis’s unreleasable Holocaust film, “.”
Neither the moral deliberations of “Hunters” nor its technical prowess are adequate to its ambitions. When Jonah is seized by feelings of guilt, the show sends him rushing to the bathroom to scrub Nazi blood from his cuticles. The action sequences are flat, the fist fights blandly choreographed. When an F.B.I. agent investigates a suspected Third Reich doctor, she opens the top drawer of the man’s desk to discover an Iron Cross, a stethoscope decorated with a swastika, and a box filled with human teeth, right there, where you might expect the Scotch tape to be. “Hunters” is clearly inappropriate for children, but it seems constructed to entertain adults who think on their level.