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Clumsy Gods: ‘Catch-22’ Brings the Subversive Humor—and Horror—of the Book to Hulu

Joseph Heller’s World War II classic gets a streaming update courtesy of George Clooney and Co.

HBO/Simon & Schuster/Ringer illustration

Those of you devoted to Joseph Heller’s viciously loopy 1961 World War II novel Catch-22 will be pleased to learn that the pilot episode of Hulu’s new six-part adaptation, which premieres Friday, quickly seizes on one of the book’s best scenes, which involves an argument about not so much the existence but the competence of God. Those of you not devoted to Heller’s novel, a black-comedy landmark and Great American Novel candidate that whimsically interrogates the meaning of words like Great and American, will be pleased to learn that the Hulu version of this conversation takes place between a half-naked dude and an extremely naked lady. War is hell; prestige TV has a few battle-tested ideas about how to sell you on it anyway.

This is the argument midway through the novel in which our hero, an angry U.S. Army Air Force bombardier named Yossarian, dismisses the argument that God works in mysterious ways. “There’s nothing so mysterious about it,” he insists. “He’s not working at all. He’s playing. Or else He’s forgotten all about us. That’s the kind of God you people talk about—a country bumpkin, a clumsy, bungling, brainless, conceited, uncouth hayseed.” In high school, I took the liberty of underlining every single line on that page except one. Look at how extra this is.

Catch-22 does this to people: to impressionable teenagers, to grown-ass adults. The Hulu version of Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott, best known as Marnie’s abruptly vanishing boyfriend on Girls) delivers much of this rant verbatim, though not, alas, the line about the jukebox manufacturer. (This version of Yossarian is also, alas, referred to as “YoYo” for much of the series, until a cute little Italian girl informs him that “YoYo” is a stupid name, though Yossarian doesn’t register this, as he doesn’t speak Italian.)

The extremely naked lady he’s talking to, unfortunately, is the wife of Lieutenant Scheisskopf, a parade-crazed officer at Santa Ana Army Air Base in California, where Yossarian is receiving flight training before he’s shipped off to the Italian island of Pianosa to add his fragile body to the grueling thick of WWII. Extra unfortunately, Scheisskopf will eventually be promoted to General Scheisskopf, and wind up on Pianosa, where he’ll join the small army of bumbling officers who comically terrorize Yossarian and his pointedly interchangeable crew of fellow airmen. Yossarian just wants to fly enough missions to go home. But those bumbling officers, led mostly by the villainous and extra-bumbling Colonel Cathcart, keep raising the number of missions required to go home. And remember: “The enemy,” Heller wrote, “is anybody who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he is on.”

Scheisskopf is played in the Hulu version by George Clooney, which is fortunate in that he’s probably the sole reason this version of Catch-22 got made at all. (He’s also an executive producer and directed two episodes.) “It took balls for Hulu to make a period classic novel like this, which is tricky,” Clooney told IndieWire in early May. “You can get into trouble with the complicated tone. There’s fun in it, but not a lot of likable people. The lead character is an unreliable jerk at times.”

The film version of Catch-22, directed by Mike Nichols and released in 1970, is a cult classic but a tough sell, given the required and relentlessly absurdist vibe; as witty and horny and brutalist 1970 war movies go, history favors Robert Altman’s MASH. So why a Hulu series now, and why expand to six episodes running 45 minutes or so apiece? Clooney’s answer to the second question, at least, suggests he’s got a handle on Heller’s cheerfully grim tone: “It gives you the ability to care about each of these characters you are going to kill.”

Heller’s novel leaps about chronologically, and leaps in tone from cartoon slapstick to blood-soaked horror, and leaps among dozens of characters, from Yossarian to Doc Daneeka to Clevinger to Orr to Aarfy to Nately to (personal favorite) the Soldier Who Sees Everything Twice. The book certainly keeps serial underliners busy. “Men went mad and were rewarded with medals.” “People who did lie were, on the whole, more resourceful and ambitious and successful than people who did not lie.” “The important thing is to keep them pledging. It doesn’t matter whether they mean it or not. That’s why they make little kids pledge allegiance before they know what ‘pledge’ and ‘allegiance’ mean.”

Both the 1970 movie and the 2019 Hulu show lift much of Heller’s absurdist dialogue word-for-word, including, of course, the iconic early scene in which the beleaguered Doc Daneeka explains to Yossarian what Catch-22 is, exactly.

Much like, say, the premise of the 1998 Gwyneth Paltrow drama Sliding Doors, you likely know what Catch-22 is even if you’ve never touched the source material. Yossarian wants to stop flying combat missions. They’re so dangerous, he’d be crazy to keep flying them. If Yossarian is crazy, Doc Daneeka has to ground him. But if Yossarian wants to stop flying combat missions and tells Doc Daneeka so, that proves Yossarian is justifiably concerned for his well-being and therefore isn’t crazy, and Doc Daneeka can’t ground him.

“That’s some catch, that Catch-22,” Yossarian always remarks.

“It’s the best there is,” Doc Daneeka always agrees.

Did we need another dramatization of this exchange, this time on Hulu, nearly 50 years after the movie and approaching 60 years after the book? Not necessarily. But America didn’t necessarily need another half-dozen or so wars after this one, either.

The subtext of some of the best war books and movies of the past 20 years—from the Clooney-starring Three Kings to The Hurt Locker to Jarhead to Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk—is that few modern American wars can boast the bulletproof logic and universally agreed-upon moral coherence of WWII. (Ben Fountain’s Billy Lynn is a fantastic 2012 novel with a black-comic heart in the proud Joseph Heller tradition; Ang Lee’s wayward 2016 movie adaption is best known for its high frame rate and the fact that it stars Taylor Swift’s boyfriend.) But Catch-22, in whatever form, is here to tell you that WWII—from a fumbling-ass bureaucratic perspective, anyway—was not exactly coherent while you were fighting in it.

Much of Heller’s novel revels in Three Stooges levels of pure goofiness (shout-out to Major Major Major Major) shot through with precise bursts of appalling gore. (Heller, a Brooklyn native, was, indeed, a bombardier and WWII veteran.) Yossarian’s hapless superiors aren’t so much evil as just brain-meltingly dumb, but that only serves to intensify the evil.

The deeply upsetting climactic scene, teased throughout both the book and the movie, involves a brief, grim interaction between Yossarian and a young soldier named Snowden in the back of a bomber taking heavy enemy fire. “I’m cold,” Snowden mostly says; “There, there,” Yossarian mostly replies, tending to a severe but seemingly non-fatal wound on Snowden’s leg. But soon comes “the grim secret Snowden had spilled all over the messy floor.” The abject horrors of war do not qualify as a spoiler. You laugh at this book with a mouthful of blood.

Nichols’s 1970 film stars a disconcertingly young Alan Arkin as Yossarian and dutifully captures the book’s off-kilter energy, with long, lyrical stretches of near-silent beauty—a fleet of bombers floating gracefully in the air, kissed by the Italian sun and blessed by a clumsy God—punctuated by madcap military follies and the occasional body sliced in half by an airplane propeller. Arkin is a “Doesn’t Look Right As a Young Person” Hall of Famer right up there with Willie Nelson and Walter Matthau, but he was blessed with a perfect “Aggrieved Old Person” voice far in advance, and he nails Yossarian’s bombastic and pathetic desperation to stop flying. “I’m desperate!” he blurts out, and means it. His striking costars range from Bob Newhart to Anthony Perkins to Orson Welles to “Arthur Garfunkel,” but the desperation’s what you remember.

Clooney is right that Yossarian, as a character, is an unreliable jerk, defined by an increasingly overwhelming cowardice. He wants to stop fighting, because he doesn’t want to die. That’s it. But that motivation also makes him, by the very logic of Catch-22, a hero, and the only sane person onscreen or on the page.

Another key Heller character is Milo Minderbinder, the Pianosa base’s mess officer, who quickly forms a hyper-capitalist syndicate—buying and selling everything from eggs to goats to Hungarian salami to Egyptian cotton—that soon grows so amoral he contracts with the Germans to bomb the Pianosa base itself. In the movie version, this raid results directly in the death of one of Yossarian’s closest friends, which in turn results in the movie’s sharpest exchange. Milo insists that this person was simply “the victim of certain economic pressures” and tacitly clings to his catchphrase that “everybody has a share,” but Yossarian’s not having it.

Milo: “He died a rich man.”
Yossarian: “Who cares? He’s dead.”
Milo: “Then his family will get it.”
Yossarian: “He didn’t have time to have a family.”
Milo: “Then his parents will get it.”
Yossarian: “They don’t need it. They’re rich.”
Milo: “Then they’ll understand.”

This universe is never subtle. But its aim is always true. The Hulu Catch-22 doesn’t have one verbal joust that indelible, but the series is expertly made and viscerally devout, and Abbott’s Yossarian pulls you through it, charming when he wants to be, pitiful when he needs to be. He spends an awful lot of time buck naked, especially in the series finale once poor Snowden enters the picture, but that’s because poor YoYo’s uniform gets so bloody, with someone else’s blood. This time he doesn’t actually say, “There, there.” But you may find yourself muttering it under your breath, an attempt at comfort that is all the more noble for being, itself, pathetic.

Hulu’s got star power, for one thing, even if it doesn’t quite know what to do with it. It’s fun to watch Clooney play a spitting-mad drill-instructor type, but he’s offscreen for whole episodes at a time. Kyle Chandler, a true American hero for Friday Night Lights stans, plays against type as Colonel Cathcart, but the series can’t quite wring the tragicomedy out of Heller’s love of bureaucratic follies: This Cathcart is a missions-raising blowhard, but not a terrifically whimsical or quotable one. (Though Chandler does get to deliver one killer line modified from the book: “This is good, this is very good. Act boastful about something we should be ashamed of.”)

Hugh Laurie is in the mix, too, as the regal and fearsome Major ----- de Coverley. (The “-------” part is one of Heller’s many, many, many gleeful indulgences.) And indeed, nearly every line Laurie says is somehow very funny, from “Everybody likes strudel, son” to “We have taken Bologna.” But then he meets some Nazis, under typically nonsensical circumstances, and disappears.

Alas, that counts as a full character arc compared to nearly every female character in the book, movie, and show alike, all almost uniformly prostitutes or nurses. Tessa Ferrer, as Nurse Duckett, gets a little more respect and gravity and breathing room in the Hulu version, but Catch-22’s thoughts on the battle of the sexes is still best exemplified, unfortunately, by the scene in the 1970 movie that starts with Orson Welles channelling Dr. Strangelove but soon devolves into the cameraman aiming directly up a lady’s skirt.

Six episodes is too long: Milo Minderbinder’s amoral huckster antics grow repetitive and tiresome, and even with more face time, you never quite grow to care about the characters Hulu intends to kill. (Ellen Kuras and Grant Heslov, the latter pulling double duty as Doc Daneeka, are the show’s other directors.) But that anonymity—the reader or viewer’s inability to keep all these people straight—is ideally a crucial aspect of the horror. The who-is-that-again aspect is, at least, more upsetting than the show’s weeping orchestral score, which is a little too traditionally patriotic at its peppiest and far too maudlin at its weepiest. The Hulu soundtrack treats Catch-22, in short, like a typical war movie, with typical villains and, worse yet, typical heroes.

That’s not our Yossarian, and never has been. “I’m afraid,” this latest Yossarian tells Major Major Major Major. “That’s nothing to be ashamed of,” Major Major Major Major says. “I’m not ashamed,” Yossarian retorts. “I’m afraid.” It is enough, in Hulu’s retelling, that for perhaps the first time you get a full and visceral sense of the bomber and the firefights themselves—the claustrophobia, the bolt-rattling terror, the constant specter of random death. It’s all legitimately terrifying, and not the slightest bit funny. That’s what makes it hilarious. That’s what still makes Catch-22 necessary.