Alibi V.28 No.20 • May 16-22, 2019 

Idiot Box

Yossarian Lives

“Catch-22” on Hulu

Joseph Heller’s counterculture-before-that-was-a-thing novel Catch-22 remains one of the most blistering satires ever penned. Loosely based on Heller’s own experiences as a bombardier during World War II, the novel first saw the light of day in 1961 and became an oft-quoted Bible of the soon-to-arrive Vietnam War generation. It’s about the brutality of war, yes, of course. But also the oxymoron of “military intelligence” and the dangers of bureaucratic groupthink. It’s also a notoriously difficult read, jumping around in time and place and dropping in on characters seemingly at random. The novel’s circuitous pathway of sequences and jokes only pays off when the novel is finished and the various perspectives have been knit together into one.

Heller’s novel was turned into a half-successful film in 1970 by noted director Mike Nichols. Now Hulu is launching a six-episode miniseries adaptation produced and directed by the team of George Clooney and Grant Heslov (who gave us Good Night, and Good Luck; Leatherheads; The Men Who Stare At Goats; Argo and The Monuments Men). It’s a dark, funny, maddeningly brilliant version that does justice to Heller’s cult-fave original.

The story centers (more or less) on “artful dodger” John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott from Martha Marcy May Marlene and “Girls”) and jumps (mostly) between his time training as a bombardier in California and his days trying to survive in a US Army Air Forces camp on a dusty Italian island in the Mediterranean.

Yossarian is starting to lose his marbles. Having flown 16 death-defying bombing missions over Europe, he’s clearly suffering from severe Post-traumatic stress disorder (before the term really came into being). He wants to be grounded based on his fragile psychological state. According to military protocol, that’s doable. All you have to do is ask. But asking to get out of the war is a perfectly sane and logical thing to do. So asking is proof positive that you aren’t actually crazy. So back to work, soldier. That, my friends, is a Catch-22.

Not to worry. Heller’s other indelible characters are also along for the ride: sybaritic Major de Coverley (Hugh Laurie), gung ho Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler), hapless Sgt. Maj. Major Major (Lewis Pullman), money-hungry hustler Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart), parade march-obsessed General Scheisskopf (Clooney himself, in a funny cameo) and cynical Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov, jumping in on the fun too).

Like Heller’s borderline absurdist novel, the series jumps around quite a bit, giving it an overall air of chaos. It’s a brave and very adult way to tell a story. And it better reflects Heller’s borderline absurdist literary style than Nichols’ disjointed 1970 version. Of course, casual viewers and nonreaders of Heller may still be at something of a loss trying to piece it all together. Over the course of its six episodes, though, the series really rewards viewers with its mature take on a black comedy classic.

Season 1 of “Catch-22” is available for streaming on Hulu starting Friday, May 17.