“Catch-22” TV series misses its target

Critics often describe “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller as one of the “greatest novels of the 20th century,” the “most significant American books of all time” and even the “greatest antiwar novel ever written.” It’s deftly abrupt juxtapositions of tragedy and comedy, horror and hilarity, violence and tenderness graphically illustrate the truth about war in all its carnage. The novel is powerful and profoundly moving. It is a vivid gut punch. I could sing its praises for hours.

“Catch-22” is one my four favorite books. I maintain a quasi-cultic reverence toward it and for this reason did not plan to watch Hulu’s new small-screen adaptation, directed by George Clooney, Grant Heslov and Ellen Kuras.

I hold the novel to be sacred and wanted, needed the TV series to be perfect so I could love and worship it like I do the book. I fully expected, however, to hate what would surely be a perversion of Heller’s pinnacle. Nevertheless, my sense of adventure persisted. So I got my free month of Hulu (I’m on a student budget after all) and binged the “Catch-22” TV series.

One must note that a defining characteristic of many postmodern novels (e.g. “Catcher in the Rye,” “Slaughterhouse-Five,” “One Hundred Years of Solitude” and “Catch-22”) is a third-person omniscient narrator who relates the story’s events in biased, ironic tone. This voice provides the humorous commentary, delivers many of the ironic jokes and is responsible in “Catch-22” for juxtaposing the humor and horror, augmenting the power of each.

Before watching “Catch-22,” I feared that without this voice – which is only written, never spoken and therefore difficult to impossible to include in a screenplay – Hulu’s adaptation would execrably fail to achieve the humor and consequent juxtaposition so pungent and poignant in the novel. If the TV series flops, I surmised, the missing voice will cause it do so. Clooney, Heslov and Kuras, however, skillfully obviated the difficulty — instead destroying “Catch-22” with less obvious ineptitudes. Wait. I haven’t told you yet. Hulu’s “Catch-22” is horrible.

Christopher Abbot’s portrayal of Yossarian (or YoYo) constitutes the first problem: He thinks too much and is too non-crazy. I find this humorously outraging because Yossarian is in fact the sanest man on his airbase. He realizes that enemy includes his pilot and commanding officers and that “The enemy … is anyone who’s going to get you killed.”

But sane does not equate to non-crazy. Heller’s Yossarian is hilariously unpredictable, cowardly and absurdly suspicious of anyone who might get him killed. In fact, the foundational irony of “Catch-22” is that everyone – including the reader – considers him crazy, precisely because he’s sane and therefore cowardly. But Abbot’s YoYo does not act crazily and, unlike Heller’s Yossarian, visibly overthinks everything. Because of this, the TV series lacks the requisite pizzazz and spontaneous humor.

The series, in fact, has little to no pizzazz because the first four episodes fail to “go all in.” They don’t match Heller’s maximally grotesque comedy and violence, therefore falling far short of his gut-punch effect.

Instead, the episodes putter down a lame middle lane of quaint laughs and startling violence. Reading the novel, I roared with laughter, wept with dejection and vomited at the carnage. Watching the series, I sat, smiled, opened my mouth —wanting to weep, wanting to laugh, wanting to vomit. But nothing. Sure, the show entertained, but it accomplished nothing.

The last two episodes gave the series a chance to recover its honor and accomplish something more than entertainment and time-killing. With a rape scene in Episode 5 and a teenager’s disembowelment in Episode 6, it had the ability to vividly impress upon viewers the psychological damage and horrific destruction of war. Instead, it vividly muffed.

In the show’s penultimate scene, YoYo sits empty and utterly destroyed on his cot. The war has wrecked him. Fresh lieutenant Newman enters his tent. After a moment of staring, he asks if Yossarian is OK. YoYo responds with a gigantic, protector-of-the-innocent bear hug. In the ultimate scene, we watch YoYo calmly lead his formation on a bombing run as they peacefully fly into a flaming sunset.

These two scenes, the bear hug and the calm, contented leadership, are entirely inconsistent with the cowardly YoYo of the first five episodes. Moreover, these scenes completely subvert Heller’s delicate image of terrifying horror and betray the individual responsibility he preached.

Heller’s Yossarian, a yellow-bellied coward who lies, cheats, attempts desertion and covers up rape so he can go home, symbolize man in the face of war: He will do anything, whether moral or immoral, to rightly and justifiably escape death. Instead, somehow, according to Clooney, Heslov and Kuras, Yossarian inexplicably and inconsistently morphs into Big Brother’s model soldier. I fail to understand and am greatly saddened by this betrayal of the greatest antiwar novel every written. C-