TV: Catch-22

One of my favorite lit reads back in college was Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, which also made for an appealing, if imperfect, Mike Nichols film back in 1970. Remaking this classic story as a prestige TV drama in the content-hungry streaming era seems like a slam-dunk idea, and Hulu delivers a pretty solid take.

The story follows the wartime struggles of Captain John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), who serves as a bombardier in the Army Air Force during World War II. Flying missions over Italy, Yossarian grows increasingly distressed and desperate as the senseless brutality and absurd bureaucracy of war take their toll on his mental state. Yossarian is determined to beat the system and outsmart the army, thereby earning a discharge and ending his suffering. Every attempt to subvert the draconian policies and inherent psychological cruelty of military life, however, ultimately backfires, spiraling him further and further into madness.

The Catch-22 miniseries has plenty going for it. The production values are high, and there’s a distinctive, impressive look and feel to it, by turns hauntingly beautiful and grim. There’s plenty of acting firepower on display. Following in the inimitable footsteps of Alan Arkin, Abbott has big shoes to fill, but does a commendable job in a challenging role. Kyle Chandler is particularly noteworthy in support as the bloviating Colonel Cathcart, a role he may have been born to play. Hugh Laurie is a hoot as the cavalier Major de Coverley, and Lewis Pullman is brilliantly funny as the blundering Major Major. Indeed, this adaptation is at its best during its breezy scenes of jazz-backed dark comedy, which reminded me somewhat of Robert Altman’s M*A*S*H, a film with a similar aesthetic.

The miniseries does fall down tonally from time to time, particularly when veering into more dramatic moments. When the focus lurches from the frustrating absurdity of Yossarian’s situation into deadly serious wartime horror, the music swells melodramatically and the post-production becomes more obvious and emotionally manipulative. In the film, Nichols infused these moments with an eerie unreality that was more powerful and tonally congruous than the miniseries’ in-your-face shifts into bathos. On the other hand, the miniseries’ extended running time affords more of the story to make it to the screen, allowing themes to breathe and resonate.

The novel Catch-22 is a classic, but it’s also tricky and unique in a way that makes it a challenging work to adapt. By and large, while Catch-22 the miniseries doesn’t fire on every cylinder, it does a admirable job bringing this memorable story to life.

Christopher Abbott in Catch-22
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