Twenty years after he left ER, George Clooney is having a riot of a time: stomping and barking his way through the opening scenes of his return to TV drama. In Catch-22, he’s irrational US Army General Scheisskopf (literally “shit-head” in German) who’s putting his soldiers through drill practice for the umpteenth time. His heightened, borderline absurd performance helps establish the tone for this impressively uncompromising six-part adaptation of Joseph Heller’s legendary 1961 anti-war novel.

Striking blood-and-sand imagery, and expertly handled tonal shifts.

Clooney is also exec-producer and directs two episodes of the series, which is set on a US base in the Mediterranean in 1942. Captain John “Yo-Yo” Yossarian (Christopher Abbott), a smart, cynical bombardier, is struggling to cope with the increasingly traumatic bombing missions he’s sent on by his uncaring, bumbling and eventually downright vindictive superiors. Yossarian is also unwisely sleeping with Scheisskopf’s wife (Julie Ann Emery), who clearly appreciates Yo-Yo’s sensitive side, in sharp contrast to the pathetic bombast of her husband.

Yossarian’s plight embodies the novel’s famous central paradox: the Catch-22 situation in which it’s insane to take part in life-threatening missions, yet when insanity is used as a reason to be excluded from them, such a move is deemed all-too rational. Abbott’s Yo-Yo is grounded and underplayed, in contrast to the blackly comic craziness around him, which pays off hugely when the character descends into genuine madness.

With its striking blood-and-sand imagery, expertly handled tonal shifts from dark comedy to claustrophobic intensity, and shocking moments of sudden violence, the series is a perfect example of how long-form TV drama is the place to take on the knottiest of challenges.

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