TV review: Catch-22, Channel 4 (4 stars)

TV review: Catch-22, Channel 4

Hilarity and horror merge in TV adaptation of Joseph Heller's war satire

While a six-part drama about World War II from a source novel published in 1961 might initially seem like a quaint history lesson, contemporary relevance is stamped all over Catch-22. Joseph Heller's satirical fiction drove a stake through the notion that war can be honourable, even if some participants are often operating from a perfectly justifiable stance. And in an age when our leaders seem all-too comfortable ratcheting up the rhetoric of armed conflict, the sense of young men (the women here are either at home or in makeshift military hospitals) simply following orders becomes more absurd as the war continues.

Our hero of the piece is John 'Yoyo' Yossarian (Christopher Abbott from Girls and First Man), a bombardier dropping death over Mussolini's Italy but who slowly sees through the propaganda and is determined to keep himself and others out of harm's way. Sadly, medical staff see right through his liver 'complaints' and send him back to the aerial frontline while his commanding officer Colonel Cathcart (Kyle Chandler) inexplicably keeps adding on missions just when Yoyo thinks he's almost free.

Executive producer George Clooney gives himself a comic role in the opening episode as the slightly psychotic Lieutenant Scheisskopf (Yoyo is having an affair with Mrs Scheisskopf, the pair sharing a mutual hatred of the man) while Hugh Laurie pops up as Major de Coverley. His main tasks during the war seem to be playing golf in a secluded zone behind his private quarters, seeking out some gourmet cuisine, and setting up an ad hoc US embassy in a picture-postcard Italian village for him and his men to indulge in a spot of R&R.

While the soundtrack is rammed with jolly period tunes from the likes of The Andrews Sisters, Rosemary Clooney (clearly George was unable to resist getting his aunt in there) and The Mound City Blues Brothers, the madness of war reeks from the screen. From Yoyo's mental health deterioration (even when he does get some time to put his feet up in hospital, the constant chatter from a fellow soldier drives him up the wall) to the fate of an officer called Major Major (he is inadvertently promoted due to his ridiculous birthname), one wrong turn can prove to be fatal. This is perfectly exemplified when Yoyo accidentally gives a new recruit incorrect directions which ultimately leads to his death in combat.

As with its source material novel, the tonal shifts between horror and hilarity are directed and played with relish. We know Trump, Bolsonaro, Boris and Putin won't be tuning in to this: the reality that when you get narcissists in charge, they always mess things up good and proper would be one inconvenient truth too far.

Episodes watched: 1 & 2 of 6

Catch-22 starts on Channel 4, Thu 20 Jun, 9pm.