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George Clooney's 'Catch-22' On Hulu Is Ambitious And Darkly Satisfying


This is FRESH AIR. I'm TV critic David Bianculli. On Friday, Hulu presents a new six-part miniseries adaptation of Joseph Heller's classic 1961 anti-war novel "Catch-22." George Clooney is one of its stars, directors and executive producers, and the longer miniseries form works to the story's advantage but also allows for a drama that ultimately is much less comic than viewers might expect. The history of Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" is one that by now may be entirely unfamiliar to the youngest generation of viewers who regularly get their TV from streaming sites. For older viewers, just the name of Hulu's new miniseries "Catch-22" conjures up not only a novel but a movie, an attitude and an era.

Heller's novel, set in the final years of World War II, came out in 1961 and instantly became iconic as shorthand for bureaucratic red tape and a general disdain for authority. Mike Nichols made a big-budget movie of it in 1970 starring Alan Arkin as the central character, nonconformist Army bombardier John Yossarian. Arkin was perfect, and the movie had some fabulous scenes and performances, but too much of the original novel's story and message was missing. This new "Catch-22," at six hours, has time to correct that particular failing, and that's exactly what it sets out to do.

Christopher Abbott stars as Yossarian, but this time, Yossarian is as much observer as protagonist, as in the original novel. Two of the executive producers of Hulu's "Catch-22" are George Clooney and Grant Heslov, movie and TV production partners who direct two episodes apiece and also give themselves roles in this new miniseries. Clooney plays General Scheisskopf, who's a riot - all bluster and anger like a Tex Avery cartoon character - and Heslov plays Doc Daneeka, the squadron physician who can't grant Yossarian's request to be grounded from future bombing missions because there's a catch.


CHRISTOPHER ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Is Orr crazy?

GRANT HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Oh, he sure is.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Can you ground him?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) I sure can. But first, he has to ask me to.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Then why doesn't he ask you?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Because he's crazy. He'd have to be crazy to want to keep flying combat missions. Sure, I can ground Orr. But first, he has to ask me to.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) And that's all he has to do to be grounded.

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) That's it. Just let him ask.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) And then you can ground him.

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) No, then I can't ground him.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) Why not?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) 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 the process of a rational mind.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) What?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Orr's crazy. And therefore, he can get out of flying combat missions. 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.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) What?

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) Orr would be crazy to want to fly more missions and sane if he didn't. But if he's sane, then he has to fly them. If he flies them, then he's crazy. And so he doesn't have to. But if he doesn't want to, then he's sane. And so he has to.

ABBOTT: (As Yossarian) That's some catch, that Catch-22.

HESLOV: (As Doc Daneeka) It's the best there is.

BIANCULLI: Many of the conversations in this TV series sound like Marx Brothers bits or "Who's On First?" Abbott and Costello routines because that's exactly the way Heller wrote them. Yossarian was just as much anti-authority and anti-everything as Groucho. And many of the exchanges between characters are intentionally outrageous, like the time Colonel Cathcart, played so wonderfully by Kyle Chandler, mistakenly gives a sergeant the responsibilities of a senior officer because of his name. The name, as the soldier tries sheepishly to explain, is Major Major Major.


LEWIS PULLMAN: (As Major Major) Sir, like I told the fellow, well, my father was something of a practical joker. He named me Major Major - first name Major, middle name Major - behind my mother's back on the birth certificate. And my surname's Major too, as you already know.

KYLE CHANDLER: (As Colonel Cathcart) Well, that is a hell of a practical joke. Isn't it, son?

PULLMAN: (As Major Major) He was a piece of work, sir.

BIANCULLI: From these clips, Hulu's "Catch-22" may sound like a comedy romp, but it's a lot more than that. Yossarian gets more and more frustrated as Cathcart keeps raising the number of missions the men are supposed to fly. And as more missions are flown and the war progresses, Yossarian's circle of friends continues to shrink. And he becomes more convinced he's going to die. On screen, a running tally is kept of the missions required. And as it and the death toll slowly rise, the tension during the bombing missions becomes anything but funny. In fact, they're so ominous and claustrophobic they're more like the underwater World War II missions in the movie and mini-series "Das Boot." The length of the drama and the way the time is utilized becomes a big asset here.

In addition to adding more seriousness and drama, this new "Catch-22" adds lots more profanity - a defensible change, given the subject matter and the more relaxed standards between the novel's publication and today's TV streaming sites. It makes room for some small but soaring set pieces, like Giancarlo Giannini's brief appearance as an old, Italian man giving the young, American soldiers a lesson in wartime relativity.


GIANCARLO GIANNINI: (As Marcello) The Germans have been driven out now as you so correctly observed. In a few months, you'll be gone too. And we will still be here.

AUSTIN STOWELL: (As Nately) Oh, amen to that.

GIANNINI: (As Marcello) You see; Italy is really a very poor and weak country. And that's what makes us strong. Italian soldiers are not dying anymore. But American and German soldiers are, no? I call that doing extremely well. (Laughter) Italy would survive this war and still be in existence long after your own country has been destroyed.

BIANCULLI: And finally, this new "Catch-22" presents a classic story of war in the military and when it's not only advisable but necessary to question authority. Clooney, as a TV producer, explored this territory before in a terrific live TV production of "Fail Safe" in the year 2000. And almost a generation later, with an ambitious and darkly satisfying "Catch-22," he's done it again.


BIANCULLI: On Monday's show, cult director and self-professed filth elder John Waters returns. His new book is "Mr. Know-It-All." In it, he thanks his parents for modeling the good taste he could rebel against.

JOHN WATERS: My mother would always say - her favorite thing is, who is that creature? - she used to say about friends that, I gathered, she didn't approve of.

BIANCULLI: Hope you can join us.


BIANCULLI: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham with additional engineering support from Joyce Lieberman and Julian Herzfeld. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. We're closing with the Bobby Sanabria Multiverse Big Band from his album "West Side Story Reimagined," a tribute to Leonard Bernstein's classic score. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.


David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.