While it’ll be off-putting to some, it wouldn’t be Catch-22 if it wasn’t. For those able to get on its wavelength, Hulu’s adaptation is a dizzying accomplishment.
Catch-22, the novel, is about many things, but chief among them is confusion. The plot’s out of sequence, many events are described multiple times from different points of view, and characters justify themselves using increasingly circular reasoning. The entire story is, in its way, a catch-22; a paradoxical skewering of war, bureaucracy, insanity, and all kinds of other things besides, perhaps best summarised by one of its own lines: “The Texan turned out to be good-natured, generous and likable. In three days no one could stand him.”
Implicit in that line is a lot of the book’s style and tone and intention in satirizing the military and the pointless absurdity of war, but also what makes the book incredibly difficult to adapt for television. It’s a jarring, lurching, dizzying piece of literature and Hulu’s six-part adaptation of it (executive produced, part-directed by and starring George Clooney, of all people) is similarly hostile and difficult to unpack. Getting a handle on the show’s tone and peculiar rhythms can be difficult, and will be simply too much work for those who prefer their television a bit more laidback and focused. But you have to wonder what an adaptation of Catch-22 would look like if it didn’t revel in its own absurdity and deliberate difficulty, and one has to conclude that it wouldn’t look very much like Catch-22 at all.
Efforts have been made to make the material more accessible, though. Events unfold more or less chronologically, with Yossarian (a well-cast Christopher Abbott) enduring basic training and eventually being shipped out to Pianosa, an island off the coast of Italy, for a number of missions designed to fulfill an ever-increasing quota. But there are only so many concessions you can make here without losing the essence of the material, and wisely the show elects not to make many more. What’s essential to it all is circularity; the idea of repeating the same actions in a ceaseless loop, the beginning and end of which is impossible to identify. From the book:
There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one’s safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions.
This works as a satire of bureaucratic and militaristic ridiculousness, but not really as the structure of a television series. Despite being undeniably well-made on a technical level, this circuitous approach can’t help but be polarizing. It can’t always work and be accessible because the basic A-to-B plot is being filtered through so many layers of detachment and abstraction. Even the sun-drenched Mediterranean aesthetic stands in stark opposition to the horrors of wartime.
But if you’re able to calibrate to Catch-22, there’s a great satire here, and equally great television. The usual critical cop-out of “not being for everyone” is truer here than it usually is, but why should every show be for every viewer? I’ll take a daring and challenging work over a safe and anodyne one any day of the week, even if by being daring and challenging a show almost certainly runs the risk of not enticing a broad enough audience to make daring and challenging shows more common. Now, there’s a Catch-22 for you.
Jonathon is the Co-Founder of Ready Steady Cut and has been Senior Editor and Chief Critic of the outlet since 2017.