Halftime Leisure

Hulu’s Catch-22 Is Captivating Excellence

September 26, 2019

I’ve never read Catch-22, but I’m just as familiar with the expression as anyone else. The idea that you are unable to successfully pick one thing or another, you’re stuck in a paradoxical situation from which there is no escape.

In May, Hulu released a miniseries based on Joseph Heller’s classic novel. I started watching it on a whim recently after having let it linger on the “My Stuff” list—and I am blown away.

The main character, John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), who goes by Yo-Yo, becomes increasingly affected by his job as a member of the Air Force in World War II. He hates the war. The position he is in makes him feel like cannon fodder, and that every mission he flies will likely kill him. 

Yo-Yo grows increasingly desperate to get out, needing to be somewhere—anywhere—else. This is where the Catch-22 principle comes in. Doc Daneeka (Grant Heslov), a sympathetic doctor on the base, explains why he is unable to discharge Yo-Yo: In order to be discharged for insanity the insane person must ask to be discharged, yet by virtue of wanting to leave they prove their own sanity. Think about that for a minute. That’s the army’s Catch-22 regulation.

There are truly awful moments in the show that nearly made me feel sick, with scenes that convey the atrocity of what the characters in the squadron have to deal with. They each have different philosophies, attitudes, and experiences, but they are living in various degrees of Hell. 

It’s dark and funny, full of situational comedy and deadpans. Most characters are caricatures, pushed to the extreme in a way that borders on uncomfortable while remaining funny. 

As the series progresses, Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) who is responsible for the squadron, keeps increasing the number of missions the men have to fly before they can be discharged, taking it from 25 to 30 to 35 to 50. The Major is a fairly despicable character, not caring about his men and pushing everything and everyone to their limits in the hopes of a promotion. He is the quintessential bureaucratic army man that is mostly brawn and insufficient brains.

The show explores less somber moments through some of Yo-Yo’s friends. McWatt (Jon Rudnitsky), Clevinger (Pico Alexander), and Major Major Major (Lewis Pullman), to name a few, know they’re just cogs in the US’s war machine. But they try to take advantage of the occasional silver lining, whether prostitutes in Rome or swimming in the Mediterranean at the base. Despite providing stolen moments of happiness, these friends are also the source of Yo-Yo’s greatest pains at other times.

There are also brighter moments in the occasional lighthearted plotline, like that of Milo Minderbender (Daniel David Stewart), a soldier who turns to capitalism for war profiteering. As the mess officer he is able to take advantage of the armies and the locals, even partnering with Germans, to mount a massive operation that he calls a syndicate, in which he buys and sells goods all over Europe. He is the extreme of the capitalist American Dream, both very nice and simple in his motives, and dark in his practices, taking advantage of the poor to make himself rich.

The series includes recurring starring appearances by Hugh Laurie as Major de Coverley and Tessa Ferrer as Nurse Duckett, as well as George Clooney, who also directed two episodes and produced the show, in the role of a tyrannical Lieutenant Scheisskopf. The high-level acting, from both established and newer actors all make this series pleasant to watch, complete with the quick and poignant dialogue and beautiful sceneries of rustic Italy and a nearly-empty Rome.

This six-show series takes on the challenge of interpreting a legendary book and does well in telling the story in an innovative way. Catch-22 sets a tone that keeps melancholy as a central theme, allowing for terrible lows and riveting highs, but keeps the audience constantly sorrowful.

Inès de Miranda
Inès graduated from Georgetown in May 2020. During her time at the Voice, she served as chair of the Editorial Board and wrote for most sections.

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Jonathan Fish

Even more compelling than the show is the real life stories of the real Yossarian and the 340th Bombardment Squadron. Check out this article on the source of the real life Yossarian – https://lithub.com/discovering-an-iconic-literary-character-was-based-on-your-grandfather/ and further details at https://yossarianlived.com/