Here's a disclaimer that I hope won't sully your confidence in my opinion of Hulu's new masterful miniseries: I never finished Joseph Heller's novel Catch-22 -- in part because of a teenage protest about an absence of required reading by authors of color at my school, and partially because, I'll be honest, the material escaped my grasp at the time. Despite being a big fan of George Orwell and his disdain for government propaganda, Heller's similar-minded searing satire about the horrors of war never resonated. Hulu's excellent adaptation of Catch-22 however, is a great advertisement for giving Heller's novel another try. (Please accept my apology, English teachers everywhere.)
Brought to screen by executive producers Grant Heslov and George Clooney — the latter of whom also stars — Catch-22 translates Heller's complex, multi-layered literature into sumptuous storytelling that's as pointed and intellectual as it is easy to grasp. As with the novel, Catch-22 follows Captain John Yossarian (Chris Abbott), a B-25 bombardier during World War II, as he tries to wiggle out of his treacherous duties by convincing commanding officers he's mentally unfit for duty. After all, dropping bombs from a plane while being shot at is insane — a task no man in his right mind would do.
There's a problem though. Army bureaucratic decree holds that concern for one's own safety is the sign of a rational mind, and if he's sane he has to fly: a catch-22. As Yossarian begins the six episodes desperate to be released from the nine remaining missions he has left, he becomes more and more ensnared by ridiculous government bureaucracies, meeting more unintentionally hilarious characters, more war hell, and more missions.
In adapting the series, Heslov, Clooney, and Catch-22 writers Luke Davies and David Michod perform the remarkable feat of lifting Heller's slick social commentary out of the abstract and into the immediate, making the tonal swings from silly to serious seem grounded. Yossarian's underlying anguish is tangible too. Throughout, Catch-22 maintains an alluring visual language that heightens the telling; its vivid palette amplifies the blues of the air and sea, while turned-up yellows and drab Army olives make for a romantic overall patina that feels as if vintage photographs of the era had been colorized and come to life. (Also fun: the short shorts, high-waisted swim trunks and tight white shirts of the era that the cast rocks convincingly, making this series one of the season's best unexpected thirst traps, if you're into that sort of thing.)
The cast rocks. Clooney is... Clooney, playing the constantly enraged Scheisskopf, obsessed with the simple-minded militaristic display of might (parades) in spite of the real danger around him. House alum Hugh Laurie plays the slippery Major de Coverly, whose suspiciously self-serving motives make him kind of an enigma, and Kyle Chandler nails the menacing meathead Col. Cathcart, continually barking at his officers and piling on more missions in abject rejection of the soldiers' humanity. There are many characters to keep track of here, sometimes to confusing effect, but their combined impact illuminates the farcical nature of government doublespeak to such entertaining, enjoyable effect that even mild confusion is worth bearing out. Yossarian's mates — including the doomed McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky) and Kid Sampson (Gerran Howell), as well as Milo (Daniel David Stewart), the mess hall officer turned illegal food smuggler, all populate the world with dynamic realism in spite of the 'Who's on First'-type idiocy at the heart of their experience.
Bringing this work to TV was a risky move, but the finished product is exceedingly well done and, at a time when government gobbledygook has trumped all previous notions of unbelievability, perhaps more urgent than anyone could have predicted. It's so good it might even make you want to read the book — the highest praise in this era of Peak TV.
Catch-22 premieres Friday, May 17 on Hulu.