The bar for success with regard to Hulu’s Catch-22 miniseries is almost absurdly high, given not only that Mike Nichols made a feature film of it in the ‘70s and, most importantly, that any adaptation of Joseph Heller’s famed anti-war novel is going to have to stand up against the seminal source material itself. Credit, then, to executive producers and directors George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who also appear in the series as lieutenant Schiesskopf and Doc Daneeka, respectively), as well as writers Luke Davies (Beautiful Boy) and David Michôd (Animal Kingdom) for not only using the six-hours at their disposal to cover more of Heller’s novel, but also for the nimble way in which it handles the challenging tonal variances therein, deftly moving between dark comedy, absurdly hawkish jingoism, and utter despair.
The series stars Christopher Abbott (Girls) as John Yossarian, a man who fears he might be the only sane member of a bomber squadron stationed in Italy near the end of World War II. Yossarian is in many ways a prototypical audience avatar. He’s the one questioning nearly everything about the world around him, especially the decisions of his superiors, particularly that of the dementedly enthusiastic Col. Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), who can’t keep from increasing the number bombing missions each solider is responsible for carrying out. As Yossarian sees it, Cathcart is every bit a danger to his personal wellbeing as the unseen enemy combatants firing anti-aircraft ordinance at the bombers during their frequent runs. Though he’s a proxy in many ways, Abbott’s performance is nuanced enough that it captures Yossarian’s frantic will to survive, even in the depths of hopelessness, while also demonstrating the necessary mental dexterity to understand, despite the ever-looming presence of death, just how darkly funny it all is.
That the story is presented through Yossarian’s perspective grants Catch-22 and its directors, which includes Ellen Kuras on two episodes, the opportunity to turn the volume up on the absurdity of many of the supporting players. The series begins with Clooney’s entertainingly cartoonish Scheisskopf being cuckolded by Yossarian, while also frequently tangling himself up in his inane attempts to upbraid the recruits before they head overseas to fight the enemy. The series’ skewering of the military mindset begins with Scheisskopf and only escalates the closer Yossarian gets to the actual conflict and, conspicuously, fulfilling the ever-fluctuating duties he’s been assigned.
No one is more gleefully unhinged than Col. Cathcart, especially since Chandler seems to be channeling a particularly warped version of his Friday Night Lights character in any of the “many of you will die for the greater good” speeches he’s so fond of delivering. Cathcart’s enthusiasm for warfare parallels Hugh Laurie’s Major de Coverley, who primarily uses his position within the greater conflict for personal gain. That angle is explored time and time again, though perhaps never as effectively as it is with the thread involving Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), who sees war as an opportunity to make a buck.
Though Catch-22 is often very funny, its success is measured by its ability to move between the tonal differences seen in Heller’s novel. It’s not uncommon for a single episode to feature a series of a laughable moments underlining the illogical bureaucracy of war before quieting down to focus on the existential dread weighing down on Yossarian before, during, and after every mission. That tonal variance is best demonstrated by the distressingly claustrophobic bombing runs that ratchet up the tension as the the bombers’ try to locate their targets, and through the inevitable deaths of Yossarian’s fellow airmen. But the series also finds ways to use quieter moments, like when the soldiers visit a nearby brothel run by Giancarlo Giannini’s Marcello, to focus on the interiority of the characters’ lives, giving them a chance to expound on things other than the high probability they’ll be dead very soon or what will be waiting for them if they ever get out of the war alive.
Much of the series’ success is due to Davies and Michôd’s scripts, which feature plenty of slick dialogue, but also leave room for montages set to period-specific music that give the audience a more complete understanding of the day-to-day lives of Yossarian and the others. It’s no small feat, then, that the series turns out to be so entertaining but also a worthy adaptation of Heller’s novel.
Catch-22 premieres Friday, May 17 exclusively on Hulu.