On paper, Netflix’s Ratched is supposed to be a prequel to the Oscar-winning film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, a series dedicated to delving into the backstory of the woman who would eventually become one of the most iconic villains in cinema.
In reality, it’s something of a slow-moving car crash: Kind of entertaining to gawk at from a distance, but a big old mess up close.
Part of the problem is that while there’s actually a surprising amount to enjoy about Ratched, it’s an utter failure as the prequel that was promised to us. This version of Mildred Ratched bears almost no resemblance to the character portrayed by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 film adaptation of Ken Kesey’s novel. That woman—who didn’t even have a first name—represents the banal and ordinary nature of evil. She is terrifying precisely because she is so relentlessly normal, a rigid bureaucrat turned heartless by an oppressive system rather than a singularly monstrous horror. In Ratched that is … incredibly not the case.
And honestly, maybe the joke’s on all of us for not realizing that this is how things would go from the start. Because Ratched is a Ryan Murphy series, and that means that it isn’t a character study so much as a bombastic combination of competing plots and themes, topped off with riotously bright colors and a heaping dose of gratuitous sex and violence. For those of us who’ve spent the better part of the last decade watching the increasingly decadent and self-indulgent twists that regularly pop up on his American Horror Story anthology—a series known for its bonkers plots, campy, lavish style, and frequently unsatisfying endings—this show will feel wildly familiar.
Here, Nurse Ratched (played by the always great Sarah Paulson, a key staple of Murphy’s stable of regulars for years now) isn’t so much an everywoman as a complete sociopath. She’s conniving, manipulative, and tortured by unexplained inner darkness from the very beginning of the show. Driven by a complicated personal mission to take a job at a very specific mental institution (Lucia State Hospital) at all costs, Ratched plots a very deliberate path to personal employment and advancement, threatening various lives along the way.
Always perfectly accessorized and outfitted to impress, there’s a palpable desperation to her actions that hints at vulnerability the show never fully explores beyond listing the many disturbing, terrible things that have happened to her. (Multiple times.) In theory, this should be a version of the character that hasn’t yet fully embraced her inner darkness, yet Ratched doesn’t actually seem to know that, and the result is a woman who lies as easily as breathing and coerces a patient to suicide in the series’ first installment, before graduating to a series of increasingly dark and macabre crimes.
Along the way, we meet her messy and ambitious boss Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) who gleefully pioneers lobotomies and chases government funding even as he’s apparently in hiding from a dirtbag private eye (Corey Stoll) sent to track him down by a rich eccentric (Sharon Stone) with her own agenda. (Don’t ask; out of every truly bizarre plotline here, this is the one that makes the least sense.) Finn Wittrock combines several of his American Horror Story characters into one performance as the deranged Edmund Tolleson, a serial killer whose murder of four priests kicks off the show. And Vincent D’Onofrio pops up occasionally as the skeevy California governor who has, for some reason, decided that his reelection prospects hinge on the success of the supposedly progressive treatments at this one remote hospital. (Why? No idea.)
But it’s Judy Davis who steals every scene she’s in as Nurse Betsy Bucket, a character who feels much more like the Nurse Ratched we probably all expected to see in this show. A woman whose strident and colorful cruelty papers over a myriad of personal insecurities, she’s fine with boiling patients in the name of mental health if the boss she has a crush on orders her to do so. Desperately broken and lonely, Nurse Bucket is one of the few characters who has anything like real interiority and her ongoing conflict with Ratched is the only relationship on the show that feels organic to the story it’s telling.
In the end, Ratched owes much more of a debt to Murphy’s American Horror Story franchise than the film on which it is supposedly based, and feels like nothing so much as a distant cousin to its Asylum installment, only with fewer aliens and Sharon Stone filling the Jessica Lange scenery-chewing grand dame role. (She takes a monkey dressed in a matching outfit with her everywhere! All the time! It’s honestly amazing even though it makes no sense!) Ratched sports a brighter bubblegum aesthetic, but pokes at many of the same themes about the nature of evil and whether monsters are born or made. Unfortunately, it’s less interested in answering those questions than its predecessor was, and is jam-packed with so many characters that most of them don’t get anything approaching emotional depth.
As a One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest prequel, this show is a complete failure. But in all honesty, if Ratched were a different series that simply told a pulpy period story about a disaster at an area mental hospital and how it impacted a series of increasingly bizarre patients, it would probably be fine. Not a great show by any stretch, because it does suffer from the same narrative bloat that plagues many of Murphy’s other series; there’s simply too much going on here for any one story to be fully satisfying. There’s something entertainingly bold about its vision, and the Crayola-bright world these characters inhabit is a fascinating one—almost despite itself. Ratched is kind of a mess, yes, but can be a compulsively watchable one.
Ratched premieres Friday, September 18th on Netflix.
Lacy Baugher is a digital producer by day, but a television enthusiast pretty much all the time. Her writing has been featured in Collider, IGN, Screenrant, The Baltimore Sun and others. Literally always looking for someone to yell about Doctor Who and/or CW superhero properties with, you can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.
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