Ryan Murphy executive produces an origin story no one asked for, with more hollow camp than anyone needs.
Some reviews are an exercise in futility, particularly when the property in question is essentially critic-proof. Ryan Murphy’s entire brand is based in “so bad it’s good” excess, and his devoted fan following makes it so that Netflix would pay him $30 million to film someone reading a grocery list. So it’s with knowing that it won’t make a damn bit of difference either way that I say that Ratched is one of the worst TV shows of 2020.
To clarify, Ratched isn’t wholly a Ryan Murphy creation, he just produced it and directed the premiere episode. Regardless, with its gratuitous sex and violence, and a fascination with disfigured bodies, it looks and feels like a season of American Horror Story, until someone remembered that there already was one set in an asylum. So Murphy, along with creator Evan Romansky, decided to attach it to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with a thread so gossamer you can’t even see it, passing it off as the origin story of the ice-hearted Nurse Ratched. “But I don’t need to know the origin of Nurse Ratched,” you might protest. That’s fine, this version of her bears so little resemblance to the Nurse Ratched of the novel, let alone the movie, that they could have just called the show Jones or Simpson and it wouldn’t have changed a thing.
When you have a priest jerking off over a lingerie ad within the first three minutes of the premiere episode, you know you’re in for some trash, and Ratched delivers, for eight exhausting episodes. Said priest is horrifically murdered almost immediately thereafter, along with the other priests in the rectory, by the Kubrick staring Edmund Tolleson (Murphy regular Finn Wittrock), as revenge for the Monsignor raping his mother years earlier, leaving her to an early death from a drug overdose, and Edmund abandoned.
Six months after the murders, Edmund is about to be shipped off to Lucia State Hospital in Northern California so it can be determined if he’s fit to stand trial. It’s the same hospital where Mildred Ratched (the ever-reliable Sarah Paulson) manipulates her way into a job as night shift nurse. Though chilly and arrogant, Mildred is also efficient, and immediately finds herself in the good graces of the hospital psychiatrist, the brilliant (yet also somehow incompetent at the same time) Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). The same day she saves a patient’s life (after poisoning him), Mildred convinces another to commit suicide, and all of this is part of an extremely complicated plan to quickly rise to the top of the hospital ranks and free Edmund.
Her plan is remarkably successful (at least up to a point), and though it’s suggested that this is because Mildred has the glib tongue of a psychiatrist, it’s really because almost every character she encounters is dumber than a bag of hammers. Just two left shoes, unable to operate a doorknob stupid. There’s not a situation she can’t talk herself out of, not a single Deep Dark Secret she can’t coax out of someone to use it against them later. The only time Mildred finds herself flummoxed is when she’s in the presence of Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), the Governor’s press secretary, who seems to see past Mildred’s facade, but pursues a secret romance with her anyway.
When you have a priest jerking off over a lingerie ad within the first three minutes of the premiere episode, you know you’re in for some trash.
Credit where credit is due: Ratched, again like American Horror Story, is swinging for a lot of fences. It’s trying to be a quirky black comedy about the appalling all-too-recent history of the mental health industry in America. It’s trying to do horror. It’s trying to be a Douglas Sirk forbidden love drama. It’s even, in some way, trying to take an anti-death penalty stance. More than anything else, it’s trying to be a Hitchcockian suspense thriller, right down to the split screens and intrusive, Psycho-like theme music. What it succeeds at is being irritating and boring.
It’s good that things perk up with someone cutting off their own arm with a chainsaw, or a lusty student nurse giving Edmund a through the jail cell handjob, because otherwise it is a joyless slog (a slog, that, regardless, has been promised ten more episodes for season two). The primary issue is that it doesn’t seem like anyone involved in the making of Ratched knew what they were trying to say. In some scenes Mildred expresses concern over how the patients at Lucia are treated, in others she mocks and torments them. When she abruptly decides she’s going to help two lesbian patients escape so they can live free together, suggesting that aw gee, she has a heart after all, who could care? She still talks someone into committing suicide. She also boils someone to death, and gives another unlucky soul who gets in her way an icepick lobotomy. Mildred’s not a “conflicted” character, she’s drawn with the broad strokes of a toddler wielding a Crayola jumbo crayon.
If anything, the second half of the season is worse than the first, thanks to an abrupt key change, when allies turn to nemeses and vice versa (mostly inexplicably) and the audience is made to feel sympathy for Mildred, and even Edmund, to a point, even though the body count amassing between the two of them is considerable. I can’t say I feel sorry for Nixon, because I’m sure she was paid handsomely for her work, but while her co-stars are all hanging off the rafters, she’s subtle and dignified. Her scenes with Paulson are genuinely touching and sensitive, which is why they often feel like they’re in an entirely different TV show, and don’t deserve to be wedged in with weird sex games and monkeys wearing human clothes nonsense.
Like all shows that have Murphy’s fingerprints on them, Ratched looks great, with sumptuous set and costume design. Its supporting actors, including Judy Davis, Amanda Plummer, Vincent D’Onofrio, Harriet Sansom Harris, and Sharon Stone (in the role clearly meant to be played by Jessica Lange, who presumably didn’t return someone’s calls), are all having a good time falling over each other to take the biggest bite out of the scenery. No one digs in as hard as Sophie Okonedo, playing a patient with dissociative identity disorder, which means, in keeping with Ratched’s commitment to being as tacky and ham-fisted as possible, that she switches between personalities like someone switching between TV channels.
Those who enjoy Ratched will undoubtedly accuse its detractors of being humorless, and not getting that it’s supposed to be campy and over the top. Oh, I get that fine. I even enjoyed the first two seasons of American Horror Story, particularly “Asylum.” But that formula hasn’t just gotten stale (please, god, I beg TV writers, give incest a rest for a little bit), it has no place being tied into a movie so grimly realistic as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. There’s nothing wrong with the idea of a supervillain origin story, the problem is that there’s no connection between the Joan Crawford-like Nurse Ratched here, and Louise Fletcher’s version in Cuckoo’s Nest. It doesn’t add any dimension to Nurse Ratched as a character, because how does someone this calculating and manipulative end up in her later years working the same job at a different hospital? This version of Ratched should have smooth-talked her way into a job as Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services by the 1960s.
It also doesn’t help that Cuckoo’s Nest is dim and dreary, while Ratched is bright and candy-colored, set in a hospital that looks more like a glamorous hotel. It’s as if Ryan Murphy’s knowledge of the original story began and ended with “there’s an evil nurse in it,” and thus his idea for Ratched was born. It’s all surface, with no substance.
Now, that’s not to say that Nurse Ratched is a well-written character who is above creative interpretation. Ken Kesey was on the fringe of the Beat Generation, and, like a lot of writers in that particular gang, his female characters were written with a distinctly misogynist view. The reader (and, subsequently, the audience) is supposed to hate her, simply by design of her doing her job. Just as it’s a bit of a stretch to refer to R.P. McMurphy as a “hero,” however, so too is it to refer to Nurse Ratched as a “villain.” What they are is the protagonist and antagonist, which is somewhat different, but it doesn’t really matter. Ratched is silly, garish trash for an audience that has no interest in such things as “insight” or “nuance.”
Ratched is now available on Netflix.
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