It is exceedingly rare for prequel projects to live up to the stories they seek to expand. The latest disappointing attempt is the new Netflix series, Ratched, created by Evan Romansky and developed by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan.
Inspired by (rather than based on) the character Nurse Ratched from the Ken Kesey novel and Milos Forman film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Sarah Paulson stars as the nurse who maneuvers her way into a job at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California. The hospital, under the direction of Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) is known for risky and questionable treatments. Facing financial challenges, Dr. Hanover seeks a deal with the governor (Vincent D’Onofrio) that they hope will be mutually beneficial.
From the opening scenes of the first episode, it is clear the connection to Cuckoo’s Nest is thin. With a tone that more closely resembles a season of American Horror Story, Murphy and Brennan’s adaptation tosses out everything Louise Fletcher established about Mildred Ratched in her Oscar-winning performance in 1975. While some prequels can undo the lore and legacy of their predecessors successfully, this does not. Paulson’s (and Murphy’s) version of Mildred is part wilting flower, part insidious schemer. Whether it is a lack of understanding or a willful rejection of past characterization, there is little resemblance to the woman who cared as much about the people she served as she did about rules and order. It’s bad enough that Nurse Ratched has spent the past 45 years being unfairly defamed as a villain. This series creates an origin that tries to make her both the hero and the villain of her own story, without quite knowing how to accomplish either.
This isn’t to say Sarah Paulson’s performance is bad exactly. But the longer she works with Ryan Murphy, the less interesting or unique her roles seem to get. Not only have we seen Mildred Ratched literally, but we’ve seen this version of her in many of Paulson’s and Murphy’s past creations, and now she is an unoriginal disappointment. Sarah Paulson has won awards for this work before and the sparkle has worn off.
Throughout the season’s eight episodes, there are moments of flirtation with an interesting direction or a tiptoe into something creative. But each time this happens, we are immediately snapped back into a constant sense of “been there, done that.” Corrupt bureaucrats, well-funded vigilantes, star-crossed lovers, marginalized people at every level using dubious methods to improve their status. If Ryan Murphy’s television credits were turned into a Bingo game, Ratched wins the blackout round.
Like other previous Ryan Murphy shows, this series introduces overarching themes like Feminism and Inclusion. But, like other previous Ryan Murphy shows, the women of Ratched are catty, backbiting, conniving, selfish, mean. Without exception, every female character is given only enough history to explain their place in the current plot, and almost every kindness is either fleeting or entirely self serving. That each is motivated only by love or vengeance is lazy and tired.
Where Ratched does succeed is in its craftsmanship. The costume and production design are luscious and rich with the brilliant blues, greens, yellows, and reds of the post-war 1940s. The use of light and color establish the noir style that should have made this series fun and exciting. Gorgeous cinematography and perfect music reach the level of quality we expect from any project with Ryan Murphy’s name on it. Sadly, this very pretty show has very little happening beneath the surface.
Ratched is an unfortunate miss. It has all the heft of a soap bubble, with none of the fun. Whether you believe she’s the villain of Cuckoo’s Nest or simply the antagonist, the fact is, Mildred deserves a better beginning than this.