The central character in Hulu’s new six-part miniseries Catch-22, Captain John Yossarian (played by Christopher Abbott), is nicknamed Yo-Yo, aptly so, since he spends the entirety of the story being yanked back and forth on a fragile cord between life and death. Catch-22 isn’t a perfect adaptation of Joseph Heller’s 1961 book of the same name—both because it’s a four-hour television drama instead of a 450-page novel and because perfectly adapting Heller’s satirical, tart narrative for the screen is probably impossible. But in the sense that a TV show can capture the spirit of something, Catch-22 is magical, maddening, tender, and caustic in equal measure. Its upside-down logic confronts you with the beauty of life and the monstrousness of a war whose only objective is to snuff that beauty out at every opportunity.
Like Heller’s book, Catch-22 launches in the middle of things, although it reworks the nonlinear structure of the book into a more chronological framework. In the first episode, Yossarian is a bombardier completing his pilot training at the Santa Ana Army Air Base. He’s plagued by a puffed-up lieutenant obsessed with military parades (George Clooney), consoled by the lieutenant’s comely wife (Julie Ann Emery), and hopeful that World War II might be over by the time he actually encounters it. Two months later, Yossarian is stationed in Pianosa, Italy, trying to complete a mission count that Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) keeps increasing every time the pilot gets close. Desperate to stay alive, Yossarian consults the camp doctor (Grant Heslov), who tells him about the catch-22 that governs getting out of combat duty: Anyone who wants to fly is crazy enough to be grounded, but anyone who declares himself to be crazy is obviously sane enough to fly.
This feeling of circular logic as a noose tightening around Yossarian’s neck, coupled with the frenetic energy of the first few episodes and the introduction of a fleet of supporting characters, can make it hard to get absorbed in the action early on. Catch-22, for all the time it spends looking at its protagonist, lingering over Abbott’s flaring nostrils and clenched jaw, gives little sense of who Yossarian actually is, or where he comes from, or what he wants, besides his immediate imperative of staying alive. As with the book, all we get of Yossarian is his presence, like he’s Sisyphus trapped in the underworld and bombs are his boulder. Initially, this distance feels alienating, but Abbott’s performance is so magnetic and so multidimensional that it’s hard not to be drawn in. The first time Yossarian registers the death of a fellow pilot, his face twitches almost imperceptibly. The second time, a much bloodier event that follows a jaunty sequence scored to Benny Goodman’s “Goodbye,” he seems to visibly fracture in front of the camera, as if you can watch his spirit degrading.
This constant flux between light and dark, farce and fatalism, is borne out in the miniseries’ stylistic elements. Clooney, Heslov, and Ellen Kuras take turns directing, all finding balance between scenes of striking loveliness and stark horror. The color palette has a kind of yellowing sepia tone, drawing out the dustiness of camp and the heat of explosions, but making the blue of the Mediterranean more cooling by comparison. The nail-biting action of the combat scenes is contrasted with carefree interludes of the pilots horsing around in the sea: swimming, drinking beer, diving, and dunking one another with a joy that’s as radiant as an aftershave commercial, and as short-lived. Even Yossarian, who stores tension inside every atom of his body, seems to relax in the water.
These fleeting moments of calm aren’t in the book, but on-screen they offer some respite from the claustrophobic irrationality of Catch-22’s events. The series’ writers, Luke Davies and David Michôd, excise some of the uglier moments, such as Yossarian groping a nurse whom he later starts a sexual relationship with. But they double down on the absurdity and doublespeak embedded in the story, in which any desired outcome can be logically reasoned and any truth also embodies its opposite. Chandler’s Colonel Cathcart, a sweating, grimacing, stuffed-khaki-shirt of an officer, demonstrates his bravery by sending other men to their death, and “punishes” Yossarian for an infraction by promoting him and giving him a medal. Yo-Yo’s comrades, meanwhile, get riled up by his persistent panic in Pianosa. “You know the difference between me and you?” McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky) tells him in one scene. “Me: happy happy happy. Dead. You: worry worry worry. Dead. Don’t drag me into your shit.”
While the pared-down plot of Catch-22 means the series almost never drags (a rarity for a streaming show), the flip side is that some supporting characters lose their significance. Aarfy (Rafi Gavron), a pipe-chewing co-pilot who commits a truly monstrous act on a weekend in Rome, seems more like a cipher in the series than what he represents in the book—the ability for American privilege to insulate itself from justice and justify anything it feels like doing. Milo (Daniel David Stewart), a profiteer who embodies the ludicrous essence of unfettered capitalism, gets more attention, but the scale and complexity of his scheming can be confusing. Tessa Ferrer, as Nurse Duckett, also seems capable of doing more than the show allows her space for.
Still, in its final episodes Catch-22 finds its emotional core, as well as its best moments of tragicomedy. There are scenes I can’t stop thinking about for the quiet ways in which they illustrate the cost of conflict, as well as set pieces that take your breath away with their synchronized grace and then their arbitrary horror. Through it all, Yossarian is the lens through which viewers see war, a self-confessed coward who’s by far the bravest man in a battalion. Catch-22, again, isn’t perfect, because Heller’s book is far too prickly and paradoxical for an easy interpretation. But it’s almost always faithful to what Heller wanted to communicate and—in its finest scenes—transcendent.