About midway through the first episode of Hulu’s new miniseries Catch-22, which marks George Clooney’s first time acting on television since 90s powerhouse drama ER, Nat King Cole’s 1943 classic Straighten Up and Fly Right begins playing.
It’s a catchy jazz tune from the same era as the show’s setting in World War II, but what’s remarkable about its use here is where the creative team decided to place it – and why. Instead of playing in the backdrop of a lively and happy scene, like a social mixer on the army base, Cole’s tune is narrating one of John Yossarian’s (Christopher Abbott) many bombing runs in war-torn Europe and its aftermath. On paper, these two very different things are so antithetical to one another that it wouldn’t make sense to place them together. In the hands of Clooney and company, however, it exemplifies the best of Catch-22.
Clooney, who stars as the domineering Lieutenant (and later Colonel, then General) Scheisskopf, directs this and the second episode. He also serves as executive producer alongside Luke Davies and David Michôd, who co-wrote the adaptation of Joseph Heller’s classic 1961 novel of the same name.
Audiences familiar with Clooney’s more recent directorial fare, like Suburbicon and The Monuments Men, will recognize his particular visual and satirical styles in Catch-22. Then again, considering the source material, occasionally pompous angles and unending sarcasm are practically a requisite for turning this book into a series.
But let’s return to the Straighten Up And Fly Right scene. Yes, it’s silly to hear that song playing while a bunch of American bombers, whose occupants are increasingly nervous about the anti-aircraft flak exploding around them, are coming down on their target. It’s a light comic touch, for sure, but it also tells viewers everything they need to know about this show.
For as interesting as Yossarian’s repeated attempts to survive the military bureaucracy’s repeated attempts to keep him and the other soldiers in the fight for as long as humanly possible, it’s everything that happens around this central drama that makes the show tick.
From the song’s continued playing long after Yossarian safely makes it back to the army base in Italy, to the brief visual gag of a soldier smoking a cigarette directly in front of a “DANGER NO SMOKING” sign surrounded by explosive ordinance. From Scheisskopf’s absurd fascination with winning a military parade competition to Doc Daneeka’s (Grant Heslov, who also serves as producer) suggestions to Yossarian about how best to beat his orders medically, Catch-22 is all about what’s going on in context. That’s how Heller designed his original darkly comic novel, and that’s how Davies and Michôd have interpreted the story (or stories, really) for their six-episode mini-series.
In that sense, one of Catch-22’s weakest links is the central drama itself. Yossarian no longer wants to fly combat missions for a bureaucratic military that doesn’t value his life and the lives of his fellow soldiers. He tries to claim insanity, but in doing so, he’s demonstrating rational thought. As a result, all of his attempts to forgo his duties are rendered meaningless.
It’s the best-known part of the story and blandest part of the show. This isn’t a knock on Abbott’s performance, of course, because he excels as the frustrated bombardier. But when compared to the silliness of a Cole tune or the many oddities of the characters and situations that surround, Yossarian pales in comparison.
Thankfully, Clooney, Davies and Michôd likely predicted this problem when they were developing the series, so they made sure to better model the structure of Heller’s novel (as opposed to director Mike Nichols’ 1970 film adaptation) and include as many of the Yossarian-adjacent stories as possible. When Catch-22 focuses on these offshoots, like Milo Minderbinder’s (Daniel Stewart) efforts to install himself in a powerful mess hall position in order to establish a trading racket and make a profit, it shines without any blemishes. Unfortunately, Yossarian’s continued efforts to shirk his duties and survive the war must always re-enter the picture, and that’s when things inevitably slow down.
Narrative choices aside, the only other thing that audiences watching Catch-22 may find themselves scratching their heads over is the show’s timeliness – or lack thereof. In a way, it’s easy to explain why this mini-series even exists. We’re still living through an overstuffed era of “Peak TV” that has exploded the small screen with some of its best (and most original) offerings in a generation. But this only answers the “how” of this programme’s existence. Even more important (and lacking) is the “why.”
Yes, Catch-22 is a good-looking show that manages to capture the spirit and the wit of Heller’s novel, but why is it here? What are Clooney, Davies, Michôd and Heslov trying to say that hasn’t already been said a million times over in this moment’s countless other “dramedies,” such as Barry or Killing Eve? This reviewer was left scratching his head by the end of the sixth and final episode. Chances are you won’t really know why this show exists, either.
Catch-22 premieres in the UK on Thursday the 20th of June at 9pm on Channel 4.