Who’s who in Catch-22 (and why you have to watch it!)

WWII bombardier John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian might be the only sane man in his squadron – which is probably going to get him killed. Here are all the reasons you need to watch Catch-22.

M-Net’s brand-new, six-part drama-action-comedy mini-series, Catch-22, is based on the wonderfully sharp, frenetic and maddening 1961 Joseph Heller anti-war classic novel. Set in 1942 on a US military base on the fictionalised island of Pianosa, off the coast of Italy, the book drew on the Jewish-American writer’s own experiences as a wartime bombardier. At once comic and tragic, it’s a dark farce about the absurdity of war, and the bureaucracy, institutionalised idiocy and outright lunacy that fuels it.

The mini-series adaptation has already been nominated for two Emmy awards (for sound editing and visual effects), and it’s garnered an 87% rating on movie ratings site Rotten Tomatoes. Euan Ferguson, of The Observer (UK) says: “Half anti-war paean, half mighty roar against gung-ho lying idiocy, it's as powerful as it was all those years ago. And genuinely, if pathetically, funny in its mightier moments.”

“Catch-22 is magical, maddening, tender, and caustic in equal measure,” says theatlantic.com. “Its upside-down logic confronts you with the beauty of life and the monstrousness of a war, whose only objective is to snuff that beauty out at every opportunity.” People are raving about the show, and it’s hardly surprising. Catch-22 has a serious set of credentials on it.

The novel was adapted for the small screen by Australian writers Luke Davies (who also wrote the screenplays for the Oscar-nominated Lion, and Beautiful Boy), and David Michôd (Animal Kingdom, Rover). The directing was split between exec producers George Clooney, Grant Heslov and producer Ellen Kuras, who’s directed on Umbrella Academy, Legion, and Ozark.

Here's everything (and everyone) you could want to know before you dive into the show:

On the frontlines

Yossarian

Captain John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian is furious – thousands of people he has never met are trying to kill him. He’s afraid. He wants to go home. He wants to not die. Unfortunately, the number of required missions between Yossarian and his next birthday keeps going up, thanks to his commanding officer, Colonel Cathcart.

Yossarian gets that there’s a greater cause at stake in the war, he’d just be a whole lot more sympathetic to that cause if his own life wasn’t also at stake. See, people around him keep dying, and in Yo-Yo’s view, “the enemy is anyone who’s going to get you killed, no matter which side he’s on. And that includes Cathcart.”

Yo-Yo is brought to life by Christopher Abbott (Girls, The Sinner), who is that magical thing – a dashingly handsome leading man with the guts and intensity to do real drama. The actor comes from a theatre background, and it shows. “Abbott’s Yo-Yo is grounded and underplayed, in contrast to the blackly comic craziness around him, which pays off hugely …” says Empire Magazine.

Scheisskopf 

… And actor George Clooney is that other magical thing – an A-list lead (AKA dreamboat), who’s willing – nay, eager – to take the mickey out of himself (see the Nespresso campaign). When he’s not in front of the camera, George is also a formidable producer. He’s won four Golden Globes and two Oscars, including Best Supporting Actor for Syriana, and the Best Picture award for Argo, which he co-produced with Grant Heslov and Ben Affleck. So, it’s no small thing that he exec produced Catch-22 and directed two episodes of its six episodes.

He also plays the bombastic General Scheisskopf (yup, it means exactly what you think it does), and clearly had a silly amount of fun doing it, bringing a pronounced Coen-brothers sensibility to the barking, parade-obsessed tyrant in what Empire Magazine describes as a “heightened, borderline absurd performance”.

The General’s wife (and Yosarian’s lover), Marion Scheisskopf, is played by Julie Ann Emery (Major Crimes, Better Call Saul).

de Coverley

Triple Golden Globe winner Hugh Laurie (House, Veep, Chance, The Night Manager and of course, Lieutenant George in Blackadder) is squadron executive officer Major de Coverley, a larger-than-life figure with an enormous (but unspecified) amount of power that he mostly uses to secure his own private recreational facilities and fine dinners.

Cathcart 

Kyle Chandler (from First Man, Argo, and Friday Night Lights – for which he nabbed an Emmy) plays the cocksure, macho and recklessly gung-ho group commander, Colonel Cathcart, a poster boy for the problems of modern-day Western politics.

Cathcart is obsessed with promotion, which drives him to continually up the number of missions the men must complete in order to complete their tour of duty and make it home safely, making him the bane of Yossarian’s increasingly imperilled existence.

Also watch out for:

A long-time co-conspirator of Clooney’s, series co-exec producer and co-director Grant Heslov (who also co-produced Argo) appears as the sympathetic Doc Daneeka, who’s also the first person to cheerfully lay out the full implications of Catch-22 for Yossarian.

Veteran Oscar-nominated Italian actor Giancarlo Giannini (Quantum of Solace, Hannibal) is the zen, amoral brothel-owner, Marcello; and Kevin J O’Connor (11.22.63, Chicago PD) plays Lt Colonel Korn, who just might be the brains to Cathcart’s brawn.

The rest of the squad:

Filling the ranks are Dunbar (Josh Bolt – Benidorm), Orr (Graham Patrick Martin – Major Crimes, Two and a Half Men), Aarfy (Rafi Gavron), all-American boy Nately (Austin Stowell), McWatt (Jon Rudinsky – Saturday Night Live, Home Again), fast-talking wheeler-dealer Milo (Daniel David Stewart) and Clevinger (Pico Alexander), whose blindly fanatical patriotism starts to look a lot like a kind of institutionalised Stockholm Syndrome. There’s also the frightened, self-preserving Major Major (Lewis Pullman), who serves as a kind of tragi-comic exposed construction tale of how stupidity trickles down from the top … and then floats right back up again.

So what’s the catch?

Spoiler Alert: The absurd circular logic of a “catch-22” is very nicely summed up in the very first episode, but if you can’t wait to get there, or haven’t read the book, here’s how author Joseph Heller explained it:

"There was only one catch and that was Catch-22, which specified that a concern for one's safety in the face of dangers that were real and immediate was the process of a rational mind. Orr was crazy and could be grounded. All he had to do was ask; and as soon as he did, he would no longer be crazy and would have to fly more missions. Orr would be crazy to fly more missions and sane if he didn't, but if he was sane he had to fly them. If he flew them, he was crazy and didn't have to; but if he didn't want to, he was sane, and had to."

Catch-22 starts on Wednesday 21 August on M-Net (101) at 22:00
Also available on Catch Up and DStv Now »