Love It Or Leave It? Review
May 17, 2019
On May 17, 2019, Hulu released its newest limited series, the six episode Catch-22. Based on Joseph Heller’s 1961 novel of the same name, Catch-22 is a dark satire of military bureaucracy and the absurdity of war. Filled with laugh out loud moments that turn on a dime into gut wrenching, deeply affecting emotional moments (complete with blood, guts, and death), Catch-22 captures much of the tone and spirit of Heller’s writing. Bolstered by some of the most gorgeous cinematography I’ve ever seen on TV as well as several Emmy award-worthy, outstanding supporting acting performances, Catch-22 is an easy pick to binge watch.
Catch-22 was developed for TV and written by Luke Davies and David Michôd, and stars Christopher Abbott, Kyle Chandler, Hugh Laurie, George Clooney, Daniel David Stewart, Austin Stowell, Rafi Gavron, Graham Patrick Martin, Pico Alexander, Jon Rudnitsky, Gerran Howell, Lewis Pullman, Grant Heslov, Tessa Ferrer, Jay Paulson, Giancarlo Giannini, Julie Ann Emery, and Harrison Osterfield. The six episodes were directed by George Clooney (2 episodes), Grant Heslov (2 episodes), and Ellen Kuras (2 episodes).
In the midst of World War II, John Yossarian (Abbott, The Sinner; Girls) is learning to be a bombardier in the hopes that his intricate training will outlast the war and his needed participation. Luck never being a thing on Yo-Yo’s side, he finds himself shipped off to the European theater where he begins to fly bombing missions with an eclectic group of men. In charge of the men’s time on the Italian island of Pianosa is Colonel Cathcart (Chandler, Friday Night Lights), a driven if not slightly bungling and insecure military man, obsessed with boosting his profile by regularly increasing the number of flights the men have to make before they are eligible to go home. With every increase in the required number of flight missions and death of a compatriot, Yossarian becomes more and more unhinged in his efforts to escape the war. Unfortunately, his increasing aversion to keep flying missions is proof of his sanity and, as Doc Daneeka (Heslov, Argo; Good Night, and Good Luck) explains, that’s the “Catch-22” of why Yossarian cannot be found unfit for duty and be sent home.
Yo-Yo: “Forget about the liver. You can ground me if I’m crazy, right?”
Doc: “Oh sure, I have to. I have to ground anyone who’s crazy.”
Yo-Yo: “Then ground me. I’m crazy!”
Doc: “You’re not crazy.”
Yo-Yo: “But I am! Ask anyone. they’ll tell you how crazy I am.”
Doc: “Yeah, but they’re crazy.”
Yo-Yo: “Then why don’t you ground them?”
Doc: “Why don’t they ask me to ground them?”
Yo-Yo: “‘Cause they’re crazy. That’s why.”
Yo-Yo: “Is Orr crazy?”
Doc: “Oh, he sure is.”
Yo-Yo: “Can you ground him?”
Doc: “Sure, I can ground Orr. But first he has to ask me to.”
Yo-Yo: “And that’s all he has to do to be grounded?”
Doc: “That’s it. Just let him ask.”
Yo-Yo: “And then you can ground him?”
Doc: “No, then I can’t ground him.”
Yo-Yo: “Why no?”
Doc: “Catch-22. Anyone who wants to get out of combat duty isn’t really crazy. Catch-22 specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of danger — real and immediate — is a process of a rational mind. Orr’s crazy, and therefore he can get out of flying combat mission — all he has to do is ask. But as soon as he asks, he’s no longer crazy, and so he has to fly more missions.”
Yo-Yo: “That’s some catch, that Catch-22.”
Doc: “It’s the best there is.”
This exchange is all you really need to know to understand the underlying theme of Catch-22.
The Good. Fans of Heller’s novel will find a lot of comfort in this adaptation and be able to point to a lot of similarities. And this is all for the good because many of Heller’s intended themes scream for visual representation – the horror of war is best felt visually and Hulu and the show’s creators have not shied away from delivering this horror into our living rooms. One improvement over the novel that I’d like to highlight is that Catch-22 (basically) moves forward in a linear timeline. Readers will know that Heller jumped around a lot in the novel’s storytelling, which added a hurdle to appreciation – Heller made you work for it. Catch-22 is more merciful.
With these kinds of TV shows, I am often asked, “Do I need to read (or reread) the book before I watch?” The best adaptations do not require this at all (see my Love It Or Leave It? for Good Omens). So, do you need to be familiar with the novel Catch-22 before diving into this show? On the most basic level? No. You will watch all six episodes and have a perfect and full understanding of Yossarian and his motivations and understand all of the major plot points that are happening. Nothing important to the narrative story of the television series requires you to have read the book. You will never say, “wait, what just happened?”
But … you knew there was a “but” coming, right? But, you will appreciate the finer details of Catch-22, the television series, 100% more if you have read the book. I cover the why of this, next.
The Bad. Catch-22 remains one of my favorite novels ever. As a senior in High School, it struck a chord with me – a mixture of my naturally dark sense of humor combined with being at that certain age where life doesn’t make much sense. As a result, Heller’s heightened absurdity and sharp tongued, satirical wit felt like finding my literary soulmate. Watching the series, I felt a lot of those same exaggerated emotions; in particular, Chandler’s Cathcart, Clooney’s Scheisskopf, and Stewart’s Milo were pitch perfect adaptations of the craziest characters and plots that the book had to offer.
As Yossarian, Abbott exhibits a wide range of the protagonist’s complex psyche, but I felt that he misses the upper atmosphere of Yo-Yo’s deteriorating mental stability (until the very anyway – see more on this below). Abbott is a fine actor and so I am left wondering if the inability to push the narrative to the next level of absurd was a writer’s choice but whatever the case, Catch-22 fails to really take us to the darkest, most infuriating aspects of the novel’s many dark corners. By centering the series around Yossarian’s almost exclusive POV, I think we lose a bit of the random chaos in the novel and so, at the end, I felt a bit of dissatisfaction – this meal didn’t fill me completely.
The Ugly. I mention above how beautiful this show is, and it is. Which makes several scenes of violence that much more impactful – down right gruesome in fact. And that’s not a bad thing. It forces you to have an emotional and physical reaction. You’ll know what I mean when you see these scenes but several times, I felt like I was suckered punched … but I was happy about it, I want my dramatic TV to make me feel something on a visceral level. Catch-22 succeeds in evoking these feelings, several times.
Love It Or Leave It? Love It. On the whole, Catch-22 really scratched my itch for high quality drama, and mostly lived up to my lofty expectations based on my love of the novel. For non-book readers, I think the trade off will be not missing the most extreme aspects of the absurd but also, perhaps, not fully appreciating all of the rich details the book provides. And, that’s probably a fair trade off. One thing that excited me most was how the show was left; Yossarian’s character is forever changed in the final episode of the series and the heightened atmosphere I mention above that I felt was missing, really starts to ratchet up. The final scene of the season, in fact, is EXACTLY what I was looking for the entire time … which makes me hopeful that if we get a Season 2, we will finally put that final piece of the jigsaw puzzle into place and complete a near flawless adaptation of a seminal literary work.
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