Ratched ratchets up the crazy and goes off the deep end: Review
Netflix's prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest is nice to look at until the too-ludicrous plot spoils the fun.
Ratched tells the same origin story three times. When Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives at Lucia State Hospital seeking employment, she’s a mysterious woman with a complicated mission. The new Netflix drama’s eight-episode first season (streaming Sept. 18) doesn’t just reveal her past. It reveals, and re-reveals, and then reveals the same thing all over again.
There are actual flashbacks to Mildred’s childhood horror, filmed with all the abrasive sensitivity of an Investigation Discovery re-enactment. Dreamlike marionettes also re-enact that same tragic past, trauma tilted hysterical via puppetry: This is a Ryan Murphy show. And then Mildred just tells someone what happened to her, a two-minute soliloquy filmed with an almost unbroken take on Paulson’s face. It’s a good speech, yet by then it serves no real purpose, like a bonus acoustic track on an overstuffed concept album. That’s Ratched in a nutshell. Repetitive cycles of mawkish drama and lavish camp undercut whatever the actors are trying to do.
The series knows how to wave its price tag in your face. Mildred drives into postwar Lucia, Calif., and finds a town full of coastal color and Crayola fashion. In the premiere, she crosses Bixby Bridge and finds a cheap cliffside motel with a view right over the ocean. The location shooting is fun, and the sets are big for horizons. Lucia State Hospital is some kind of converted old-money mansion with floral wallpaper, picture windows, and more breakable vases than you expect from an asylum. The nurses wear bright turquoise. The most dangerous inmate gets stashed in a converted wine cellar. Bad writing murders great production design, though. The first time someone walks into the office of Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), the facility’s chief administrator, you gaze longingly at his boulevard-length curtains. The sixth or seventh time something ridiculous, ultraviolent, and unbelievable happens in that office, even the curtains look bored.
Nurse Ratched didn’t even have a first name when Ken Kesey created her in 1962’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Louise Fletcher’s steely glare in the 1975 film didn’t need a backstory. The show fills in all the blanks and takes place in a polychromatic 1948 that suggests the Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk. Meanwhile, certain high-tension musical cues nudge Hitchcockian. It’s a cheeky conceit for a prequel. Nurse Ratched was the villain of Cuckoo’s Nest, a hallmark New Hollywood anti-establishment fable with gender lines drawn sharp between a brash male rebel and a deadpan lady boss. Could she be the tragic hero of an earlier Hollywood era? Worth pointing out that, in the show’s diverse ensemble of characters, the main white guys are a serial killer, a corrupt politician, and a scarred veteran. That’s a sins-of-masculine-privilege hat trick: violent monstrosity, horny disinterest, noble impotence.
Dr. Hanover is an ex-pat Filipino researching the fatal forefront of the psycho-sciences. He experiments with lobotomies and hydrotherapy while getting high on his own supply, and Briones brings the petty tyrant a note of imperial desperation. He’s fun, though immediate plot absurdity forces you to wonder why Hanover is simultaneously living in hiding and seeking mass media coverage. Head Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) is Hanover’s no-nonsense lieutenant, who cheerfully boils patients’ skin off for the greater good of mental health. Any story about an asylum is, eventually, about how those in charge are crazier than the patients. So we also meet a nurse named Dolly (Alice Englert), a textbook nymphomaniac attracted to ludicrous danger.
And we haven’t even gotten to the madman named Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), who kills a gaggle of Catholic priests in the show's first scene. From there, the premiere follows Mildred’s first day at the hospital and establishes that everyone is some kind of nutcase, and there’s a visit from the governor of California (Vincent D’Onofrio) because his entire re-election campaign somehow rests on an underfunded mental hospital. Don’t forget about the mystery man at Mildred’s motel, played by a bemused Corey Stoll.
The gubernatorial thread and the Tolleson subplot are already too much for a series that’s supposed to be about a strange nurse in a curious hospital. Still, the first couple episodes sizzle with romance and danger. The governor’s press secretary, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), takes a special interest in the asylum — and in Mildred. The two women go to a restaurant full of windows overlooking the foggy coast. They seem to be communicating messages without quite using words — and that, more than anything, was Sirk’s great gift to Hollywood cinema, the sense that all the beautiful people were talking around something too mature for the censors. The scene lasts long enough for meaningful glances to become long stares. And they eat oysters.
It's an outlandish yet restrained moment, electric with the sense that everyone understands the big thing that nobody’s saying. Ratched never finds that energy again. The series marks the first major credit for creator Evan Romansky, but Murphy and fellow executive producer Ian Brennan are up to some familiar tricks. Sharon Stone shows up as a vengefully rich matriarch whose main character trait is asking people to decapitate someone. Sophie Okonedo checks in, playing a multiple personality case who yells, “Beethoven would f--- you in the face!” when she’s not cursing an invisible Hitler. The first episode ends with a showbreaking revelation that deflects Mildred’s whole arc into a top-secret plan that never makes sense. By midseason, everyone either loves a murderer or is a murderer.
I know, I know, I know: This is supposed to be what’s fun about Ryan Murphy shows! Wonderful performers, kooky twists, a monkey on Sharon Stone’s shoulder, a Spring Fling at the mental hospital, sex through prison bars! Ratched is a shirttail American Horror Story spinoff that owes a clear debt to that anthology’s transcendent Asylum entry. This is the third series Murphy has launched on Netflix, and it reflects his transgressive instincts better than the dire Politician or the preachy Hollywood. Something has happened to Murphy and his collaborators in their Netflix victory lap, though. The old luridness keeps edging into feverish moralizing, as if everyone is worried about being too offensive. Enemies become allies and vice versa so constantly that the plot momentum becomes its own weird stasis. Ratched wants you to cackle at the characters while also sincerely appreciating their striving souls. There has to be a difference between campy hyperbole and grasping pretension. You want Countess Luann to sing, not explain what her songs mean.
Everything is just so terribly obvious, and too many creative decisions are outright embarrassing. Consider what happens every time Okonedo’s character shifts between her many personalities. The performer’s face alters ever-so-subtly because that’s what great actors can do. For some reason, a dunce in the editing room added an explanatory whirring noise on the soundtrack. A personality changing sound effect? Come on! And we surely can accept a lot of ludicrous story points from our luscious trash. But really: Why would someone record themselves conducting an illegal lobotomy? Why would they keep that recording?
Paulson’s a problem, unfortunately. Mildred is supposed to be, like, a sympathetic murdering traitorous dedicated dismissive repressed libertine grieving clever villain hero. She lies about everything and is also great at everything, as if Tom Ripley was also Harry Potter. Paulson traps herself in a kind of respectful monotone, playing every corner of Mildred’s puzzle-piece psyche with bland cool. You sense what’s missing whenever she’s in a scene with Davis, who turns Nurse Bucket into a delirious portrait of cruel authority masking lonely insecurity. Davis lets you see the contrast between Bucket’s public and private face. That separation may look extinct in our days of social media screaming, but if you can’t honor that mood in a period piece, you might as well film some TikToks with old-timey clothing.
Worth pointing out that one key point of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is that Nurse Ratched isn’t an obvious horrorshow. In Kesey’s telling, and Fletcher’s playing, she represents the banality of bureaucratic evil, more monstrous in her everything-just-so normality than any of the crazies she’s patrolling. The whole tone of Ratched feels like a point extremely missed, and it can’t even generate its own upside-down gravity. At times, its rudeness is just crude. One character has a habit of stabbing the various non-white domestic workers in his mansion. None of those victims ever get a scene, or even a real line of dialogue, whereas the attractive young white maniac gets all the laugh lines: Hmm. The lone Black employee at the asylum barely appears until his big plot point, and then the characters forget about him in the worst way: Hmm.
Ratched also features an outrageously bad LSD scene, all woo-woo camera angles and “drugs made me do it!” bad behavior, which is a special blight given Kesey’s extracurricular activities. I was all set to credit Ratched as a glossy misstep, another nice-to-look-at mediocrity from a creative coalition that needs some new ideas. And then I got to the finale, which is one of the worst hours of television I’ve ever seen, successfully stitching lame soap opera cliches and lame horror cliches into a veritable Frankenstein of dramatic lameness. The clothes are nice, but they’re dressing a corpse. C-