Despite flashy costumes, production design, and some strong performances, Ratched is an unnecessary prequel and a tired re-hash of Ryan Murphy’s previous work.
Fresh off the generally well-received Hollywood, Ryan Murphy has returned to Netflix with yet another original series, seemingly determined to churn out no less than three shows every year. This time, instead of following the lives of Hollywood starlets, Murphy draws inspiration from the iconic novel/film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest to provide the backbone for his latest series, Ratched.
Although star Sarah Paulson’s presence gave us some hope going in, Ratched is nothing more than a rehash of American Horror Story: Asylum with a shiny new coat of bankable intellectual property paint.
Starring Paulson in the titular role, the series is set in 1947 and follows nurse Mildred Ratched as she arrives at a mental hospital in Northern California. There, she witnesses (and eventually becomes a party to) increasingly disturbing experiments being conducted on patients in the institution. Although Nurse Ratched originally arrives at the hospital with seemingly good intentions, both her ethics and her motivations come into question the more we learn about her.
Despite the fact that the entire cast gives committed performances, the sheer pointlessness of Ratched makes the series as a whole constantly frustrating. Even after having seen the show, there is no justifiable reason as to why Nurse Ratched, of all characters, needed a backstory – part of what makes her character in both the novel and the movie so impactful is that she stands as the embodiment of evil – just like the Joker, giving her a backstory defeats the nature of what makes her character so strong.
The fact that the series is so unnecessary would still be true regardless of who the showrunner is, but with Ryan Murphy at the helm, Ratched not only serves as a needless prequel, it’s also a very clear attempt at re-working American Horror Story: Asylum – like Murphy had a few leftover ideas from that season and wanted a way to produce them, so he got Netflix to slap a familiar name on it, and set to work.
The similarities between Ratched and Asylum are as frequent as they are frustrating – Paulson plays a closeted lesbian at a mental institution which regularly practices conversion therapy, and along the way, she befriends a few lovable, disfigured outcasts, and attempts to free a convicted murderer of being sentenced to death. In keeping with the rest of Murphy’s darker endeavors, there’s also a gaggle of B-story sideshow characters that drip with flashy costumes and overcomplicated backstories but have little to no bearing on the main story whatsoever.
In addition to Paulson as Ratched, the rest of the cast is filled out by Jon Jon Briones as Dr. Richard Hanover, the asylum’s troubled leader, Judy Davis and Alice Englert as nurses in the facility, Finn Wittrock as psychotic murderer Edmund Tolleson, and Vincent D’Onofrio and Cynthia Nixon as California’s governor and his press secretary.
To their credit, almost every member of the cast gives stellar performances – though Davis, Nixon, and Paulson herself are particular standouts. Mildred Ratched is not an easy character to root for – she’s snippy and obnoxious at times, while compassionate and vulnerable in others, but Paulson does her absolute best to elevate the inconsistent writing. We can’t say that the character really works, but that’s by design as a result of the show’s premise and the source it’s adapted from, so Paulson can’t be blamed for attempting to bring emotion and consistency to a generally flaky character.
Surprisingly, it’s the show’s supporting players that are the most well-written and likable – Davis’ Nurse Bucket is at first infuriatingly stuck-up and prudish, but her devotion to her work as admirable, and the more the stiff outer layers are pulled away, the more we grow to love her. Adversely, Nixon’s Gwendolyn Briggs is easy to root for from the moment she steps onscreen – whip-smart and perceptive while also incredibly compassionate and vulnerable. Briggs also serves as Ratched’s love interest, although comparatively little time is spent on their romance and it ultimately feels too underbaked and last minute for us to root for it.
D’Onofrio, Charlie Carver, and Hunter Parrish are all incredible talents who make the most of their relatively small roles, and we couldn’t help but wish we could’ve seen more of them. Carver, in particular (who we know as Ethan on MTV’s Teen Wolf) brings a vulnerability and charm to his performance that we’ve never seen before – a standout role in his resume, no doubt. The last performance of the bunch we feel compelled to mention is Finn Wittrock as Edmund Tolleson, the murder whose killing spree kicks the entire series into gear. Although the hokiness of his performance may be in part due to Murphy’s direction, Wittrock over-acts to the maximum and brings no charm or depth to what could’ve been a juicy role.
In terms of production design, Ratched is one of Murphy’s most glamorous series yet – Ratched drives a bright aqua car that matches the color of her uniform, and when she’s not on the clock, her costumes are composed of decadent coats and brightly-colored gloves. It’s a sharp contrast to the muted tones of the film on which the series is based, and more than anything else, it feels like a reminder of how little Ratched is attempting to respect or honor its source material. It’s got decadent and high production-value to be sure, but we don’t feel that the story being told justifies (or fits) the brightly colored sets and costumes.
The score, on the other hand, is one of the series’ strongest points – Mac Quayle’s title theme and composing for the entire series as a whole feels like it would be exactly at home in a film of the era in which Ratched takes place, and does quite a bit to elevate the series as a whole.
Still, though, despite the glossiness of the production and the amount of talent in its cast, Ratched is neither necessary nor engaging. Filled to the brim with disturbing imagery and colorful characters, the series is all style and no substance and should be ashamed to try and connect itself to the iconic legacy of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
What do you think of Ratched? What’s your favorite TV show that’s based on a book or movie? Sound off in the comments below.