Ratched is writer, director and producer Ryan Murphy’s attempt to create an origin story for Mildred Ratched, the main antagonist of Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. The character was portrayed, and immortalised, on the big screen by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 film adaptation of the novel.
A patchy origin story for a classic villain
Anybody familiar with Ryan Murphy’s work knows he has certain quirks and signature moves. For starters, his television world is a sumptuous feast for the eyes. The costume and production design are impeccable. Secondly, the narratives are peppered with deliberate moments of shock, awe and horror, designed to wring out a gasp. Lastly, you’re guaranteed an excellent ensemble. Ratched has all this. Sarah Paulson, Murphy’s muse, breathes life into the titular character, a cruel, compassionate, obdurate and lovelorn woman. Yet the show fails to move you or even capture your attention the way it ought to. The biggest reason is the confounding character study that never gets a grip on the central character.
The series picks up with Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) craftily finagling her way into a nurse’s job at Lucia State Hospital. She’s blunt to the point of being rude and a consummate liar good at manipulating people to get what she wants. She finds in Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) a means to an end and an obstacle, respectively. The only people before whom she shows moments of vulnerability are the charming serial killer Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), nurse Huck (Charlie Craver) and political aide, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon). She embarks on an unexpected and tender romance with with Briggs.
There are numerous times during the series where you think you’ve stumbled upon Murphy’s horror anthology American Horror Story (though Ratched is more unsettling than frightening). There are also some déjà vu moments that recalls his Bette Davis-Joan Crawford drama, Feud. The show is peppered with acerbic one-liners that might remind viewers of Glee. In writer-creator Evan Romansky’s hands, Mildred Ratched is more inscrutable than nuanced. In an attempt to make her well-rounded, she comes across as a hodgepodge of contradictory characteristics. For instance, she starts off as sadistic and opportunistic, then swerves into being kind and tender-hearted towards her patients, and then swings her car right back into the brutality lane. You can never keep up with her or understand where she comes from, even though we’re shown and told (multiple times) her tragic childhood story. After a point, all the things that are meant to unlock Ratched’s psyche – her being a lesbian and struggling with it, childhood trauma, losing her parents – feel like useless elements that give no insight into her behaviour.
Tens across the board for performances
Ratched may be awash with problems, but its cast is not one of them. Sarah Paulson absolutely crushes the material, no matter how disjointed, she’s given to work with. Judy Davis is delightful as Betsy Bucket, who is pitted as Ratched’s apparent nemesis. Finn Wittrock, Cynthia Nixon and Jon Jon Briones do more than justice to their roles. Sophie Okonedo, who plays Charlotte Wells, a patient suffering from multiple personality disorder, is a revelation and a good enough reason to continue watching the series. However, our favourite is hands down Sharon Stone’s Lenore Osgood, a quirky, mildly psychotic, hilarious heiress out for revenge. Osgood is always accompanied by her monkey Petunia, who perches on her shoulder. That visual alone warrants a watch.
The show is a looker
Murphy is known for having shows that are set like a sumptuous buffet for the eyes. Ratched, based on its stills alone, would make a spectacularly stunning book of photographs. Production designer Judy Becker and costume designers Lou Eyrich and Rebecca Guzzi deserve a round of applause for creating a fictional world that is so beautiful to look at. The use of colour, the meticulous composition and framing of visuals and the outfits that bring alive the late 1940s make Ratched visually arresting.
WATCH OR NOT
Ratched is a beautiful looking TV show that’s sadly not compelling enough to watch.
Creator: Evan Romansky
Cast: Sarah Paulson, Sharon Stone, Cynthia Nixon, Finn Wittrock, Judy Davis, Jon Jon Briones, Charlie Carver, Alice Englert
Streaming on: Netflix