The greatest contribution that Hulu’s “Catch-22” makes to Joseph Heller’s story is Christopher Abbott’s face. He plays the part of Yossarian—an antsy, disillusioned, frightened American soldier in WWII—as if it were always meant for him. For a series that gradually loses its sharpness in its commentary on power and masculinity in wartime, Abbott’s performance constantly reminds you of what’s so great about Heller’s book, but also what is timeless in making a dark comedy about war.
The rest of the people on his base in Pianosa, Italy, about a third picked from Heller’s massive original set majors and colonels, are less captivating. That is not related to the considerably more comfortable state of mind they have, the way they turn war into opportunity, or at the most like an endurance test. There’s Milo Minderbinder (Daniel David Stewart) an upshot pipsqueak who rises from mess hall manager to international businessman, making twisty deals with various other countries including the Germans; Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov), a Groucho-looking medic who sporadically advises Yossarian, and the sheepish Major Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman) who channels his anxieties into working on a wooden boat in his office. They live outside Yossarian’s nightmare of the required mission total constantly being raised by Colonel Cathcart, preventing him from ever getting home. These are inherently funny characters—bonafide walking contradictions when you get to know them—but they don’t pop here so much as feel half-baked.
“Catch-22” is better with creating atmosphere than it is at telling a joke, and there are plenty of moments in which it creates a strange peacefulness on base. The sunlit moments of Yossarian and his colleagues drinking beers, or jumping in and out of a nearby lake. Throughout, Catch-22 gets some punch from its camerawork, which celebrates two different generations of cinematography in one sequence—a classic Hollywood stationary shot, where the energy comes from two people talking, mixed with lively Steadicam shots that take us from one moving Jeep to the next.
But before long, Yossarian is back up in the air, sent off with a Glenn Miller tune. His time on the job makes for one of the series’ most striking reoccurring visuals, as he sits in the nose of a bomber plane, with a front-row seat to the exact thing he is deathly afraid of. The land entirely visible below him, it would be a million-dollar view were it not for the flak and bullets that could get him at any second. It’s a wild world up there, and it slowly breaks Yossarian’s spirits each time he goes up.
The officials of “Catch-22” hardly see war, and they’re played by the series’ bigger stars as bit comedic parts. These characters play the same note, of being powerful when given the chance to make Yossarian’s hell, but are themselves intimidated when dealing with a superior. It becomes disheartening to see the series sell out the possible comments on fragile masculinity and leadership for easy comedy that’s too dopey, even by the standards of these bumbling characters. They’re the outlet for the series’ more straight-forward jokes, like George Clooney and his Lieutenant Scheisskopf, so obsessed with making the soldiers parade, or the bumbling way that Colonel Korn (Kevin J. O’Connor) and Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) accidentally promote a man named Major Major Major to the rank of Major. Not to be forgotten is Hugh Laurie’s Major — de Coverley, who briefly appears for a couple scenes before an abrupt exit, a slow-burn joke that peters out.
But then there’s Abbott. In a sea of homogenous soldiers, he stands out, not just because he’s naked the first time we meet him, covered in someone’s blood. He’s in a mindset of his own, consumed with a misery about being in the war that other characters don’t seem to share. Whether pretending that he’s sick to stay in the hospital, standing near a beach, or later holding a new soldier’s guts in his hands, Abbott is transfixing in the part. He layers the character with both traditional machismo—a cool-headed stud sleeping with the lieutenant’s wife—or the feeling of being scared shitless, as with his anxieties about dying before he can finally go home. His work here most directly recalls the under-seen character piece “James White,” another project in which he filled the screen with immense inner turmoil any time the camera took a minute to study his face.
The series is adapted by Luke Davies and David Michod, and is directed by Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras. But it’s hard to remove how much this feels like Clooney’s show, especially as it proves even more how Clooney’s taste for comedy has become incredibly tedious, from the snazzy Chuck Barris story “Confessions of a Dangerous Mind” to the grating “Suburbicon.” With Clooney’s version of “Catch-22,” the jokes are much longer than they are funny, and the darker passages that don’t cut as deep as they should. It’s telling that what is new in this story is often a weak moment, and that’s without even comparing it to Heller’s original vision. The absurdity of the book may be timeless, but the charm of this definitively messy series is mighty fleeting.
All episodes watched for review.