War is hell, sure, but in Hulu’s Catch-22, it’s more like a dream. Executive-produced by George Clooney and Grant Heslov—each also star and direct two episodes apiece, with Ellen Kuras helming the other two—the six-episode adaptation faithfully maintains all the deeply surreal dark comedy of the Joseph Heller novel it’s based on. The result is a sepia-filtered look at the cost of wars on the young lives that fight them that is somehow a profoundly funny and enormously depressing watch all at once, just as much a contradiction as its title promises. It’s some catch, that catch-22.
As much as a narrative like Catch-22‘s can have a main character, our way in here is Yossarian, a.k.a. YoYo, a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force during WWII played by a slowly unraveling Christopher Abbott. YoYo is desperately trying to earn his discharge papers in the face of a bureaucracy that continues to raise the number of bombing missions a soldier has to complete before getting sent home. It’s through YoYo that we’re first introduced to the concept of a catch-22, as described to him by the base’s physician, Doc Daneeka (Heslov): the only true way out of the war—besides, you know, death—is to be declared insane. But the second you ask to leave, you’d immediately be diagnosed with a sound mind, because only a sane person would want to be discharged. Your classic catch-22. It’s an insanely frustrating concept that you get to see slowly drive Yossarian to the absolute brink, to the point that fighting the German troops can’t compare to waiting on the glacial slowness of a piece of discharge paperwork that just needs a single stamp of approval.
Abbott pulls off a bit of an impressive magic trick with his performance as YoYo. This is a character that needs to walk a mighty thin line between a handsome straight-man reacting to the strangeness surrounding him and the absurdist comedy glue holding things together. Yossarian almost feels like a classic Twilight Zone character, a man who wakes up one day to find the whole world has gone insane and he’s the only one who’s noticed. Abbot is fantastic at “is no one else freaking out?” style breakdowns, all wild eyes and clenched fists. “We’re afraid of a line on a map,” Yossarian tells a fellow officer, referring to the chart that decides who/where gets bombed. “Do you know what that feels like? To be afraid of a piece of string?”
But Catch-22 is actually a more interesting, engaging show when it meanders, just kinda living dreamily among the odd cast of characters that populate the base around Yossarian. The clear stand-out is Private Major Major Major—his father named him that for the lols, pretty much—a socially inept recruit who gets promoted to Major Major Major Major due to a clerical error, played by an endlessly endearing, wonderfully sheepish Lewis Pullman. But there’s also Milo (Daniel David Stewart), the mess hall officer turned war profiteer who basically builds a food-trading empire based on black market eggs. And Nately (Austin Stowell), the sweet-natured officer who falls in hopeless love with a prostitute while on leave in Rome. Or even Kyle Chandler‘s buffoonish Colonel Cathcart, the officer in charge of consistently raising the mission count, a character that uses Chandler’s Friday Night Lights-honed ra-ra attitude to stupidly funny effect. The benefit of the miniseries format is that you genuinely start to care for all these weirdos. Which of course twists the knife that much more as the fight takes most of them, one by one, as the war effort rolls on. (The immersion is helped greatly by the fact the production value here is insane, all stunningly captured with a hazy glow by cinematographer Martin Ruhe.)
The glaring problem with Catch-22, though, is that all these characters are the same shape of white dude who, frankly, all even sort of look alike. You could read this as a commentary on the facelessness of war, the way those who fight barely get a name and a face after the effort chews them up and spits them out. Or you could read it as the same diversity problem that TV has had since TV was first a thing. Not every story needs to set a new bar for diversity, of course, and Catch-22‘s environment does lend itself to a sort of tragic “boys bein’ boys” tone. But even on a series as genuinely enjoyable as this, it’s hard not to notice that 90% of the female characters are Italian prostitutes, and the one with the most prominent role in the story gets (literally) tossed aside to her death deep into the show to set up a conflict for Yossarian.
But really, in the end, all these characters are tossed aside in one way or the other. At its heart, Catch-22 is a tragedy, the type where you laugh to keep from crying. And you will laugh; as someone who hasn’t read the novel since high school, I forgot how hard the satire hits and how high the general quirk level stays throughout. But much like the bombardiers Catch-22 follows, you’ll find over six jarring episodes that the high only lasts until the bullets start flying.
Catch-22 premieres on Friday, May 17th.