There’s a moment late in Catch-22, as a second world war bomber returns from a mission over Italy, that I realized planes can land with their engines on fire. The plane, smoke trailing its left engine, wobbles to the runway, which seems ridiculous – if the fire is literally at hand, how can it just land normally? But apparently, that’s the way it is.
That shot – extraordinary treated as normal, routine marred but not upended by disaster – captures, like many others, the pendulum of contrasts in Catch-22, Hulu’s limited series adaptation of Joseph Heller’s canonical 1961 novel. Executive produced and part-directed by George Clooney (with Ellen Kuras and Grant Heslov), Catch-22 enjoys a jarring cut – the lurch from control to chaos, tranquillity to brutality, upbeat swing music to ominous score, a sunbaked beach to lines like: “His eyes, there was no life flashing before them or anything like that. Just terror.” It’s a book that revels in the absurdity of war and impotent bureaucracy, which on the screen translates into an exquisitely filmed, disorienting send-up of our ability to rationalize insanity as just the way things are.
This is, after all, a show that opens with a naked Christopher Abbott, streaked in blood and walking along the tarmac before promptly jumping back two years to basic training. John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (Abbott) prepares to depart for the Mediterranean theater (in the show, both a physical location and a theatre for the arbitrariness of bureaucratic decisions and their dramatic consequences). Yo-Yo endures the indignities of training from General Scheisskopf (Clooney) with his best friend, Clevinger (Pico Alexander) before shipping out to the island of Pianosa, off the west coast of Italy. Unlike the novel, Hulu’s Catch-22 unfolds chronologically from 1942 to roughly 1944, as Yo-Yo and his compatriots fly an ever-growing number of missions over the Italian countryside, as ordered by the bumbling Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler, remarkably both intimidating and idiotic) and apathetic Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie).
But it’s not all death and destruction; in his satire of the military and the meaninglessness of war, Heller luxuriated in paradox and circular reasoning – “I mean, you know what I mean?” – and Clooney’s camera lingers on Yo-Yo and his time in the Mediterranean sun. There is sunbathing, dates in Rome and fresh tomatoes with olive oil, imported by the most ambitious mess hall supervisor of all time, Milo (Daniel David Stewart). Over time, Catch-22 establishes a distinctive, destructive pattern: lounge on the beach, jump into the water, fly another mission, maybe survive; count down the mission quota to get home, only to have it raised again; repeat. Yossarian wants nothing more than to go home alive, but the more he tries to inject free will or control into his military life, the more chaos ensues.
It’s quite a famous catch, and Clooney’s adaptation is immediately impressive – visually deserving of a bigger than a laptop screen – with a cohesive, arid palette and shots ranging wildly in scope from resonant closeup to sweeping landscape. But it takes a couple of episodes to settle into the show’s polarizing rhythm, which is less a film-making issue than the high-level entry to the source material’s cunning conceit. A story about the seesaw of insanity, filtered through detached ridiculousness and aesthetic of a Mediterranean vacation, isn’t exactly accessible in the first 30 minutes; like Yo-Yo and Clevinger’s punishment in training – carrying buckets along the edge of a circle – it’s not easy to pinpoint where the loop starts and ends. Only when you calibrate to its repetitive satire do the points in Catch-22’s yo-yoing seriousness become clear – just in time to realize, by the third episode, that it’s not a circle after all, but a downward spiral.
Abbott, as the star, is a slow burn but ultimately fascinating as the frustrated Yo-Yo, his every grimace grounding the show’s destabilizing ridiculousness. Catch-22 is indisputably well-made, and above all a smart show, perhaps too smart for its own good – every shot feels considered, every head-spinning layer worth talking out to make sense of it.
Whether all those parts add up to compelling TV is, given Catch-22’s swift tone shifts, less a question of the show than what the audience wants from TV. It’s easy to imagine how some would find the brutal, nihilistic irony of the story grating, though if it were otherwise then it wouldn’t be an adaptation of Catch-22. The show spins ridiculous conversations into humor but pulls no punches with gore. And unlike other recent Hulu series such as Ramy or Shrill, or other portrayals of the second world war, Catch-22 doesn’t delve into character studies; though Clooney was wise to stretch the adaptation into six episodes, even Yossarian barely has a backstory, better to foreground his vacuous, unwinnable struggle but not for casual viewing.
That cycle can make you dizzy, and the dizzier you get – the more you align with Yo-Yo’s claustrophobic hamster wheel – the easier it is to keep going. It’s not for everyone, but as TV binge catches go, it’s close to the best there is.
Catch-22 starts on Hulu on 17 May with a UK date to follow