In the winter of 1961, a man by the name of Joseph Heller released his newest book, Catch-22, to immediate and overwhelming popularity with the general public. The satirical dark comedy was based on Heller’s own personal experiences as a bomber in World War II, and the anti-war messages throughout proved to be extremely appealing to young people during a time of increasing disillusionment with the Vietnam War. It was a book that critics still claim pulled off a staggering balancing act between the comedic and tragic elements, coming together to craft a story that left a profound impact for generations. Almost 60 years later, people everywhere are intrigued to learn that George Clooney and Grant Heslov have partnered together with various other talent to create a 6-episode mini-series that functions as an adaptation of the long-beloved Catch-22. It seemed an interesting prospect, no doubt, as Clooney and Heslov would be directing, acting, and producing, as well as bringing in a star-studded cast and crew to bring the story to life. Excitement built as the time drew closer and closer until we finally arrived at the anticipated release date on May 17, 2019. Ever since the release, everyone from diehard book fans to casual viewers have been wanting to know: is Hulu’s Catch-22 a series that warrants a watch? The answer: for the most part, yes, as long as you can be forgiving of its flaws.
Catch-22, like its novel counterpart, is a series that attempts to balance comedic and darker elements in order to criticize the American military system in particular. Our protagonist is John Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott), nicknamed Yo-Yo, a young bomber in World War II whose only main goal is to survive the war at any cost and get back home as soon as possible. This simple mission is made exponentially more difficult by the fact that the minimum amount of missions that must be completed is always being raised whenever Yo-Yo begins to approach his goal, keeping him essentially trapped. He tries to be grounded for insanity by his friend and military doctor Dan Daneeka (played by Grant Heslov) so that he can go home, but that’s where the Catch-22 comes in. Catch-22 is an old military rule that states that if a person wishes to be grounded for insanity, they must simply make a request for it. However, if a person requests to be grounded, it shows that they are acting on self-preservation instincts, which would make them sane in the eyes of the military. Therefore, there is no real way to be grounded for insanity, since an insane person would have no problem with flying life-threatening missions and only a sane man would ask to be grounded for insanity.
Not only that, but as the series progresses, an obvious pattern of events emerges: Yo-Yo goes to the beach, interacts with his friends, has to fly another mission, has to deal with something new that has gone wrong over the course of the episode, and then comes back only to find that the mission count was raised. Wash, rinse, repeat, try as he might to escape the cycle. It’s these sorts of frustrating paradoxes, time loops, and acts of dramatic irony that the show obsesses over throughout and leans on heavily for most plot points and theming, but to be fair this is the novel’s main selling point as well and it can work if you don’t personally find it too irritating to watch. If this kind of non-progressive circular thinking is your cup of tea, then you’ll be happy; if not, then you’ll be better able to empathize with Yo-Yo as events and ideas not only swing in a repetitive loop around him, but the circumstances seem to worsen with every loop. Yo-Yo is also joined by a large cast of colorful characters, each with their own quirks and minor storyline that becomes interwoven with Yo-Yo’s overarching journey. The impact of these storylines both emotionally and in relation to the plot can vary from character to character.
Positives and negatives are certainly both present at times, but let’s discuss the highlights first. The actors that fully embrace their cartoony, over-the-top roles that render them almost as caricatures are fantastic. This includes George Clooney himself as General Scheisskopf, the ridiculous parade-obsessed drill sergeant who earns plenty of laughs, Daniel David Stewart as Milo Minderbinder, the silver-tongued natural businessman that somehow starts a trade route in the middle of a war, and Kyle Chandler as Colonel Cathcart, the petty base leader with a cruel but wacky superiority complex who is hellbent on continuously raising the minimum mission requirement. These actors go all out on making their characters entertaining for every onscreen moment, and the other supporting characters were less memorable but still mostly enjoyable. The film’s cinematography was also lovely, the crew was never afraid to linger on a shot or scene that needed a moment longer to sink in or to use similar but slightly different shots whenever a time loop was occurring. These repeating shots with minor changes each time do well at showing how Yo-Yo was being changed even though the things around him weren’t, and the hard work in the visuals department shows. Finally, once you as the viewer begin to familiarize yourself with Yo-Yo’s seemingly endless circular spiral down the drain, as well as how these turns of events affect those with interconnected stories around him, you can begin to truly understand the weight of his desire to get out of there immediately. This gradual change in the viewer’s understanding of Yo-Yo’s trials make his schemes to keep from flying his missions seem more and more like the pitiable actions of a desperate man rather than simply hollow humor.
With that, we’re brought to our negatives. On one hand, the book’s author Joseph Heller did an amazing job keeping the humor and horror balanced when compared to how the series handled matters, as Heller put significantly more emphasis on the comedy. This ratio makes it so that when tragedy does finally strike in all its dark glory, it delivers a gut punch to the reader, who is swiftly reminded, “Oh yeah, this is a book about the evils of war and not just silly boot camp shenanigans, how could I forget?” The book’s humor also acts as a booster to the dark themes since the fact that the war and everyone’s role in it is nothing more than a ridiculous farce makes it even more upsetting that Yo-Yo can’t escape something so dangerous that is just a joke in reality. He isn’t fighting a noble war to save the world, he’s doing pointless flight missions and serving megalomaniacs to give them a power trip. In the end, his missions are just as pointless as the military parade formation that Clooney’s character was obsessed with perfecting to make himself feel good, and the book uses its comedy to make these points obvious and with grace. The issue with the Catch-22 mini-series is that, with the exception of the previously mentioned amazing actors, no one is playing their role with an appropriate amount of humor or is just simply not good at making their roles funny. Abbott does generally do well at becoming Yo-Yo, but his performances in the dramatic scenes are far more enticing than any of his comedic exploits, as he seems much more comfortable and is much more easily able to slip into the role of the straight everyman that life places into a difficult situation. A specific scene involving Yo-Yo and a gravely injured soldier was a great example of Abbott’s ability to make us feel for his character through dramatic tension. However, when it came time to have a funny scene, things usually went better (still not great, but better) if Yo-Yo was simply reacting to someone like Milo’s various escapades instead of trying to generate laughter from his own lines.
Overall, if Catch-22 seems like something that piques your interest, you can give it a watch on Stan in Australia and decide for yourself. One thing that this series is certainly not devoid of is intriguing elements that the show has utilized in a very different way that deserves our scrutiny, which in of itself may be considered a victory for the creators. Unless every single element listed so far about the plot has turned you off, the series is definitely interesting enough to warrant one viewing, as well as possibly a read through of the novel. It may not be a perfect show, but it’s a compelling experience that you really have to see for yourself to come to your own conclusions about. You may really enjoy it, and if not, the unique execution at least gives you something to discuss with friends over popcorn.
4.5 STARS (OUT OF FIVE)