Catch 22 is my favorite book. I don’t remember when I first read it, maybe around the age of eleven or so, but I distinctly remember when it made me laugh for the first time. I started reading and the comedy snuck up on me. I thought it was going to be old-timey and stale and I couldn’t believe that someone who was alive during World War Two — in the olden days — could be so funny and sarcastic and devilish and wry. I found Heller before I found Vonnegut or Oscar Wilde, and the realization that you could tell a serious story with a serious message through the lens of comedy was utterly life-changing.
I know Catch 22 so well, I literally wrote the cliff notes on it. That’s true. It was for a cliff notes competitor startup, which unfortunately folded before the first cheat sheet hit the stands. Probably not because of my work, though you never know. But I’ll tell you this: I wrote the everliving shit out of that analysis. It made my deep dives look like haiku.
And no one ever read it.
So you can imagine my excitement when Hulu announced a six-episode miniseries based on Joseph Heller’s seminal masterpiece. Excitement and reservation. The 1970’s Mike Nichols film of the same name never quite worked for me. And I’d try to explain it better if I had ever made it all the way through in one sitting. I had a vision of Yossarian that the film couldn’t live up to, despite having an all-star cast led by a young Alan Arkin.
The book, as they say, was better.
I’ve been reeling from the loss of Game of Thrones, a beloved show dashed on the rocks before our very eyes, and so it was with a desperate hope that I sat down to watch Catch 22 this past Saturday, when Hulu opened the bomb bay doors, so to speak.
I was not disappointed.
A few notes off the top. I’ve only seen the first episode. Dustin wrote to his contact at Hulu a few weeks ago and asked them to send me screeners because I’d be covering the show and I got diddly back. No response. Squat. Bupkus. In fact, over the years here at Pajiba, I’ve probably covered dozens of shows, and I’ve never once been sent a screener. For any show, ever. I don’t know if it’s the television gods’ way of asking me to get lost, but I’ve never been legitimized as a member of the free press. Other Pajiba writers use screeners as coasters and they build furniture out of them. They have enough extra screeners to knit them into clothing for their children. Kristy Puchko, our managing editor and a goddamn ray of sunshine, has a shower in her apartment that only shoots advance copies of everything.
Must be nice.
I slum it. I set my DVR and I grumble like Eeyore and then I get to work. I just want to put that out there for all you kids reading this who hope to grow up and revel in the all-shwag no drag sexcapade of freebies that is the life of a professional television critic. You roll those magic TV dice and they don’t always come up Dustin Rowles. For some of us, the cake is a lie.
Hulu’s Catch 22, on the other hand, is a rare delight.
But there are a few things to note: First of all there are precious few female characters in the book, since the story focuses on an all-male squadron of bomber crews. That may be enough to send you looking elsewhere. Secondly, there wasn’t a single person of color in the opening episode, the show opting to attempt a more literal adaptation of the material over a more contemporary one which might allow for greater diversity in the cast. And thirdly, they stay true to the language of the times, which to our ears is fraught with discomforting lingo.
If then, you opt to continue, the experience is rewarding. I’ve watched the opening episode of the six-episode miniseries now three times. The first time I watched alone, lost in a sense of wonder and warm from a couple glasses of really, really delicious Malbec. The second time was with Lady C, who had read the book — maybe — years ago for school and had no recollection of it, and a third time with Lady C’s parents who were visiting us for the weekend. They’re both in their seventies, both think they read the book a half century or so ago, and didn’t remember a single thing about it.
We all really enjoyed it.
My in-laws said they’ll definitely watch the rest of the episodes. Lady C said it reminded her why members of the greatest generation can be so entrenched with their opinions, specifically because they actually risked their lives to protect them. She also said the subtitle of this review could easily be “boys will be boys” or “now I understand white privilege more.”
For me, watching a beloved text be visually honored and appreciated, the enjoyment was complete.
The opening episode is shot with a luxurious burnt umber and sienna palette by cinematographer Martin Ruhe, and is generously permeated with a lovely score from brothers Rupert Gregson-Williams and Harry Gregson-Williams, as well as with music of the era.
It looks great, and thanks to executive producers George Clooney and Grant Heslov, (both of whom also lap up key on-screen roles as Colonel Scheisskopf and Doc Daneeka, respectively), you immediately know you’re in capable hands.
Clooney was originally slated to play the role of wartime commander Colonel Cathcart, but decided to move to the more inane and absurd role of Scheisskopf when Kyle Chandler signed on to play Cathcart.
I mean, Kyle Chandler. Coach T. He doesn’t appear until the last ten minutes of the pilot episode, but oh baby does he deliver. Lady C loves him and I didn’t tell her he was in it, so when he appeared out of thin air I heard her lose her breath a little. Goddamn is that boy beloved. Texas Forever, y’all.
The most difficult part of turning prose to video with regard to Catch 22 is the number of cast members you’re meant to distinguish. I remember this same dynamic around the turn of the last century when everyone was trying to sell a fantasy football show. There were dozens of scripts floating around Los Angeles, but they all had the same problem: too many characters. A standard fantasy football league is 10-14 players. So how do you distinguish them in a visual medium? One has a beard. One wears a funny hat, etc. It was still unwieldy. Eventually, FX’s The League won that battle by shitcanning half the league members and making them virtual online players. Boom. Done.
That problem in Catch 22 is compounded by the fact that you have upwards of fifteen young, white guys all in the same uniform. It’s 1942 when we meet them. It’s not like you can give one of them a red mohawk.
(That’s Clooney there, by the way, in the foreground, hamming it up)
To solve this the show opts for tight singles of each cast member with their name superimposed next to them. Kid Sampson. Clevinger. Dunbar. Nately. McWatt. Orr. They play the hits right off the bat to give the audience a map.
But really, there’s only one of these that really matter. Captain Yossarian. Or Yoyo, as he’s introduced.
This is his show. Yossarian is played by It Comes At Night’s Christopher Abbott, and without having seen the remaining five episodes, I can tell you that the series will either sink or swim because of his performance. That’s how important Yossarian is to Catch 22. It’s entirely his experience as a sane person stuck in an insane situation.
Yossarian is desperate to live, and deeply resents the fact that thousands of people he doesn’t know are trying to kill him. He vows to “live forever or die in the attempt.” And a copious amount of the source material is just a chronicle of how he schemes, through any means necessary, to get out of combat.
The pilot episode did an amazing job of capturing his fear and making it feel palpable. It’s something that varies in degrees in the book depending on how you read it. For me, it was refreshing to see the series commit to Yossarian’s trauma right off the bat. These guys are in a floating tin can, flying in a straight line with no cover, and the enemy is trying to blast them out of the sky. It’s nuts.
To make it worse, Yossarian continually points out, the war is largely already won. The Germans have been routed. The enemy is in full retreat. Why keep bombing?
After one episode, the series looks to have potential. Abbot was excellent as Yossarian. His swarthy looks work for the character, identified as Assyrian by Heller, and later as Armenian in the sequel, ‘Closing Time’. Abbot is interesting to look at; at times he appears to be an everyman, and other times the camera catches him in a way where he’s drop dead gorgeous.
Whether or not the series captures the breadth of Heller’s genius level comedy remains to be seen. Clooney kills it out of the gate. He plays stupid so, so well. Chandler is a wonder. Add Hugh Laurie to that cadre as Major De Coverley and you’re off to the races.
Six total episodes, all available to stream right now with your Hulu subscription. I don’t yet know if this series will be able to fully deliver on the magnificence of Heller’s brilliant anti-war manifesto, but if the first episode is any indication, it’s got a fighting chance.
Header Image Source: Images courtesy of Hulu