Despite some amusing humor, cynicism, ‘Catch-22’ never rises to ‘must-see’ TV

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Despite some amusing humor, cynicism, ‘Catch-22’ never rises to ‘must-see’ TV

George Clooney produces and stars in Hulu's historical comedy miniseries

George Clooney produces and stars in Hulu's historical comedy miniseries "Catch 22," based on the novel of the same name.

Courtesy of IMDB

George Clooney produces and stars in Hulu's historical comedy miniseries "Catch 22," based on the novel of the same name.

Courtesy of IMDB

Courtesy of IMDB

George Clooney produces and stars in Hulu's historical comedy miniseries "Catch 22," based on the novel of the same name.

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It’s a scene late in episode two of Hulu’s “Catch-22” miniseries, based on the classic 1961 novel by Joseph Heller. Air Force Sergeant John Yossarian (Christopher Abbott) walks along the sunburnt tarmac on the Italian island of Pianosa, arguing with the skinny, rulebound Clevinger (Pico Alexander). They’ve just flown back from weekend leave in Rome, and their commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart has raised the cap of missions they need to fly before they can go home.

“Open your eyes, Clevinger!” Yossarian yells. “It doesn’t make a damn bit of difference who wins the war to someone who’s dead!”

“Congratulations,” Clevinger responds. “I can’t think of another attitude that could be depended upon to give greater comfort to the enemy.”

“The enemy is anybody who’s gonna get you killed, no matter what side he’s on, and that includes Cathcart,” Yossarian responds.

Courtesy of IMDB
Kyle Chandler in “Catch-22.”

It’s a passage that captures the insanity of the war, lifted directly from the WW2-set novel, and while writers Luke Davies and David Michôd add a few original lines of their own before the scene is through (Yossarian: “You continue to recklessly operate on f – – -ing principle”; Clevinger: “To my dying day”), it typifies this production’s adherence to the source material.

And yet, there’s something missing here.

Through all the absurdist violence — like a soldier getting sliced to smithereens by the propellor blades of a plane — and the wry humor — manifested broadly in earlier episodes with an onscreen ticker counting down how many missions Yossarian has left, and more subtly in the bureaucratic babble of Yossarian’s superiors — “Catch 22” never really provides a much-needed “wow” factor.

Still, it’s got beautiful cinematography by Martin Ruhe, and it’s well-directed by Grant Heslov, Ellen Kuras and Clooney himself, who also appears as the military parade-obsessed Scheisskopf. Filmed on location in Italy, Catch-22 features plenty of gorgeous vistas and ancient architecture in scenes set in Rome, Palermo and the Italian countryside. The visuals are bright and sunny, though hardly colorful.

For action junkies, there’s plenty of nail-biting scenes with a terrified Yossarian and friends in claustrophobic B-25 bombers, as artillery fire explodes in the sky and bullets whizz pass the cockpit. But these are Air Force men, not infantry — so no “Band of Brothers”-style ground combat here.

What that groundbreaking HBO miniseries does have in common with this one is a cast of young, good-looking male up-and-comers, most of whom I was unfamiliar with. Anyone who had to read the novel in high school and take quizzes on all the characters’ names will appreciate the difficulty in telling them apart. It gets easier as the show goes on, particularly as Yossarian’s circle of friends is whittled away by death, disappearance and worse.

Standout performances include director Grant Heslov as Doc Daneeka, the harried physician who introduces the cyclical concept of “catch-22” to Yossarian in episode one: If a soldier is crazy they can go home, but if a soldier says he’s crazy then he’s clearly not and is fit to continue serving. Daneeka is a man who knows how the system works and knows there’s no use in fighting it.

Courtesy of IMDB
Christopher Abbott, best known for his role as Charlie in HBO’s “Girls,” leads the show as Yossarian, a bombardier in the U.S. Air Force during World War II.

Another is Giancarlo Giannini (famous for his collaborations with Italian director Lina Wertmüller, including the similarly pitch black war fable “Seven Beauties”) as Marcello, the owner of a brothel Yossarian and company frequent in Rome. His speech about the fall of American empire, which might be singled out during awards season, is a series highlight.

And there’s Hugh Laurie (“House”), who doesn’t do much as the naive Major de Coverley but meets a humorous end when he enters a building filled with surprised Nazi soldiers, assuming it’d already been seized by the Americans due to some midnight map-tampering by Yossarian back at Pianosa.

“Catch-22” is an admirable work that faithfully captures the spirit and scope of the original novel. But it’s also unlikely to blow anyone away.