Based on Heller’s acclaimed satirical book of the same name, the Catch-22 miniseries tells the story of “incomparable, artful dodger” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott of HBO’s Girls, The Sinner and First Man, and one of Variety’s “10 Actors to Watch” at HIFF 2015), a US Air Force bombardier in World War II “who is furious because thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him.”
His real problem, though, is not the enemy, but rather his own army which keeps increasing the number of missions the men must fly to complete their service. And if Yossarian makes any attempt to shirk his military assignments, he’ll violate “Catch-22,” a bureaucratic rule which specifies that a concern for one’s own safety in the face of dangers, which are real and immediate, is the process of a rational mind—a man is considered insane if he willingly continues to fly dangerous combat missions—but a request to be removed from duty is evidence of sanity and therefore makes him ineligible to be relieved from that duty.
The term “Catch-22” is now part of the American lexicon, applied to any such paradoxical situation where one cannot win or escape due to contradictory rules or limitations. A commonly used example would be: “You need to have money to make money.”
Along with Yossarian, the series, which follows the novel, features a motley cast of characters as he and his fellow pilots and crew members get into trouble, first at boot camp and then in the war. For one thing, Yossarian is sleeping with the wife of his tightly wound, parade-obsessed cadet school training commander, Scheisskopf, played by series executive producer George Clooney. Scheisskopf makes the men’s lives hell, so they’re glad to escape him when they’re shipped overseas—until he, too, ends up with them as head of operations for the entire Mediterranean theater. Laughs and cringes ensue.
Heller, who died at age 76 at his Skimhampton Road home in 1999, based Catch-22 on his own life as a 12th Air Force bombardier, flying B-25 Mitchells over Italy and France during WWII. He started the novel in 1953, taking eight years to complete it. In 1970, the book was made into a film, directed by Mike Nichols and starring Alan Arkin as Yossarian. A 1973 attempt at a Catch-22 TV series, starring Richard Dreyfuss (Jaws) as Yossarian, made it as far as a pilot that aired, but the show was never picked up. Heller’s book was also adapted as a play, which toured in 2007 and 2008.
Heller published a sequel to Catch-22, Closing Time, in 1994. Given the Hulu series’ strong audience reaction—it received an 85% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes—perhaps Hulu will create another miniseries based on Heller’s followup.
Catch-22 is streaming now on Hulu.