Prior to Friday’s premiere there were warning signs that “Ratched” might be more of a Ryan Murphy camp-fest than a sincere prequel to “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” An eye-popping color palette, with certain scenes completely bathed in red or green, stood in stark contrast to the white and gray backdrop of Milos Forman’s 1975 movie.
Explicit, darkly comic threats over the theft of a breakroom peach took the place of Nurse Ratched’s passive-aggressive manipulation of patients. And the villainous character’s symbolic place in popular culture as a representative of corruption and dehumanization within industrialized medicine, especially for anyone reliant on in-patient care, didn’t appear as important to the new series as ghoulish frights.
Also, Sharon Stone’s co-star was a monkey. Again.
Seeing as the Oscar-nominated actress has turned curious guest arcs on random shows into high art a time or two before, she and her simian companion were far from the bellwether of doom than the other factors turned out to be. Stone manages to escape “Ratched” with far more goodwill than the show itself. In the hands of writer and creator Evan Romansky, as well as director and executive producer Murphy, “Ratched” is a far cry from a faithful prequel to the landmark book and film it’s inspired by, but far more troublesome is how bad the series is on its own.
Forget the IP; these first eight episodes don’t hold together as, well, anything. (They also don’t offer anything close to a satisfying ending, as at least one more season is planned.) Part ’40s melodrama, part early aughts torture porn, “Ratched” isn’t frightening, affecting, or even all that interesting. It’s thrown together folly and nothing sticks.
To explain further, I’ll have to dip into spoiler territory, so read on knowing select plot points will be discussed. But if you’re only curious to know whether or not to watch, trust that you won’t be missing anything you haven’t seen a better version of elsewhere. Paulson can’t compete with Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning turn given this material, and even Murphy’s trademark passion for vivid colors and splendid costumes comes to life with more meaningful flair in “Pose.” “Ratched,” as it’s been said, is wretched. And it also doesn’t make any sense.
[Editor’s Note: The remaining portion of the review contains spoilers for “Ratched” Season 1, including the ending.]
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
1. Colors and Dresses and Scarlett Letters, Oh My!
You know at the start of a horror movie when everything is fine and there’s only a faint sense of foreboding in the air? The great directors paint these early scenes with such beautiful imagery that you’re lulled into complacency; feeling if this was all there was to the story — pretty pictures and exquisite craft — then that would be just fine. (Think: “Hereditary” or most Hitchcock.) As a scaredy cat, I’m often more susceptible to these soothing rhythms than most and “Ratched” offers more than enough gorgeous, highly saturated seaside vistas to go along with its top-notch costume and production design to make you wish the series was more of a silent movie.
If you force Netflix to show you the credits, instead of skipping to Episode 2, you’ll see exactly why everything looks so grand. Sure, Murphy directs, but Oscar-nominated production designer Judy Becker (“Carol,” “Brokeback Mountain,” as well as past Murphy projects “Feud” and “Pose”) sets up the cliffside bungalows and spacious hospital living room that capture your eye; five-time Emmy winner (and a Murphy veteran since “Nip/Tuck”) Lou Eyrich designed the costumes (along with Rebecca Guzzi), including Mildred Ratched’s signature teal green ensemble (including driving gloves that match the color of her car and steering wheel); and Emmy nominee Neslon Cragg, who’s shot everything from “Homeland” and “Halt and Catch Fire” to “Breaking Bad” and the “Pose” pilot, served as the director of photography who lined up all those stunning compositions.
No, the craft is not the problem here. Really, when Edmund (Finn Wittrock) kills four priests and sets the events of “Ratched” in motion, I prayed for it to calm down. There’s a lot to study visually and the violence often just gets in the way.
2. The Oysters… My God, the Oysters
In a nutshell, the first season of “Ratched” is a story of siblings. Mildred Ratched (Paulson) cons her way in to the Lucia State Psychiatric Hospital in order to help her brother, Edmund, convince everyone he’s too crazy to stand trial. The rest of the season is her bribing and conniving with the head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) as well as the head doctor, Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) to get what she needs.
There’s actually very little time spent watching her deal with patients, and most of those scenes focus on Ratched as a caring and compassionate assistant. Perhaps “Ratched” will deal her such a blow that she’ll pivot and become the monster we know from the movie… or maybe it would rather just let Sarah Paulson play a hero.
The series seems more interested in reframing Ratched as a repressed lesbian who struggles with accepting her sexuality. Unfortunately, the series also struggles with her sexuality as it rather clumsily introduces her interest in women through an unconvincing and all-too-convenient relationship with Gwendolyn Briggs, the top aide to California’s boorish governor (played by Vincent D’Onofrio). The pinnacle of Ratched’s blindness to her own emotions arrives during a scene that’s far too blunt for viewers, who are also still trying to understand if she’s actually anti-gay or hiding something about herself.
Gwendolyn, who thinks they’re on a date because they are, by all accounts, orders oysters, and then proceeds to teach the seafood newcomer how to eat one. To say this is done with innuendos doesn’t do the “SNL”-esque exaggeration justice. While absolutely entertaining it’s also completely disconnecting — you lose all touch with what else is going on, as you stare in an awkward stupor at this stretched out sketch. It’s not… bad, but it is definitely… a lot.
3. “Cuckoo”? More like (Chain)’Saw’
“Ratched,” however, tips that balance in the wrong direction when dropping one of its many nauseating backstories. Turns out Sharon Stone’s character, an uber-rich single mother named Lenore Osgood, is out for revenge against the hospital chief, Dr. Hanover. A few years back a cocky Hanover arrived at Osgood’s luxurious estate to try to help her son, Henry (“13 Reasons Why’s” Brandon Flynn), who had a bad habit of “pricking” people. (Quick cutaways show him walking up behind the waitstaff and stabbing them.)
Without getting into the how and why too much, let’s just say Dr. Hanover’s LSD treatment goes horribly awry, and Henry — not kidding — saws off his own arms with a chainsaw. Due to the ensuing sepsis he also loses both legs. So his mother wants the bad doctor dead and it’s hard to blame her (even if her son is a total shit).
This is but one way in which “Ratched” incorporates body horror into a show that’s too poorly constructed to build actual terror and too disinterested in its source material to tell a story sans frights. For “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” fans that means seeing a few people nearly boiled alive in the infamous “tub room” — referenced in the book and film — but that’s all. Don’t go into this expecting Forman’s finesse. This is Murphy’s show, and it’s not one of his best.
Saeed Adyani / Netflix
4. Puppet Torture Porn
To that same end, Mildred Ratched’s backstory is so incredibly nasty that it fails to do the one job it’s there for: set up her villainous turn. What’s even more perplexing is the method “Ratched” chooses to explain her origins.
In the sixth episode, Mildred acknowledges enough of her personal interests to go on a date with Gwendolyn and, reminded of her love for childlike entertainment by a random TV program, the Governor’s aide and hospital nurse take in a not-at-all romantic… puppet show. In said puppet show, Mildred immediately starts hearing another story than the one the rest of the crowd hears. To her, the puppets are reenacting her childhood, where she and her “brother” are actually two unrelated orphans who bond over their shared abuse in multiple households.
Puppet dads swat puppet daughters, puppet moms threaten puppet sons, and then real actors do the same thing. But regular old child abuse isn’t enough. No, Mildred and Edmund are eventually adopted by a couple who make them abuse each other, on stage, in front of paying pedophile customers.
This is impossible to fathom; such long-term and highly public sexual, physical, and mental abuse is such an extreme act that, without a doctorate, there’s no telling how it would affect these kids as adults. That’s probably why Romansky and Murphy use it; not only is it deeply disgusting and thus a fresh horror for fans to chew on, it’s a catch-all to explain any odd behavior required of Mildred and Edmund by the plot. But why it had to be enacted in both puppet and human form, well, that’s a question for the ages.
5. Double Down on Exposition!
OK, so after all that, Mildred understandably snaps and starts screaming at the puppeteers in front of everyone, which leads Gwendolyn to ask what’s wrong. So Mildred tells her. And we hear it. Again. Right after we saw it, and heard it, and lived with it in our minds a mere five minutes earlier. Paulson’s big exposition drop of a monologue goes on for four minutes and it’s not even that great of a scene for the indisputably great actor, so why it’s there at all remains — you guessed it — another question for the ages.
6. Charlotte Wells and Friends
In case all of this wasn’t enough, “Ratched” also introduces a new character with multiple personality disorder. Charlotte (Sophie Okonedo) is completely inessential to the plot — she literally lifts right out by the end — and her sudden pivots between characters are designed to shock you into paying attention; well, that and the murders. The murders are rather shocking, too. But her whole deal feels outdated, overly showy, and, and again, too disconnected from the plot. Her motivation doesn’t even change when she changes characters; as Dr. Hanover, who she murders for no real reason, Charlotte says she wants to kill Edmund for killing another one of her friends (who she only knew as a different personality)… and then Charlotte, still as Dr. Hanover, teams up with him.
If that sounds complicated, don’t worry: It doesn’t actually make sense in the show either. But that doesn’t stop Edmund and Charlotte from hitting the road together, and they remain at large when the season ends. Mildred and Gwendolyn are in Mexico, the brother and sister vow to kill each other over the phone, and that’s it. That’s “Ratched.” It’s an absolute mess, and if it seems like I ran out of gas describing it here in this last section then you are 100 percent correct. Trying to stitch all these threads to together is an exercise in futility. But hey, at least the actual stitching — the clothes! — are great. And Sharon Stone. And her monkey.
“Ratched” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix. Season 2 has already been renewed.