Nurse Mildred Ratched is one of cinema’s most memorable villains, standing toe-to-toe with the likes of Darth Vader, Lord Voldemort, and even Thanos. And while she may not wield any cosmic powers, her apathetic nature and totalitarian rule over her vulnerable psychiatric patients are haunting enough to make anyone’s knees tremble. The character was created by author Ken Kasey in his 1962 best-selling novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and Ratched’s status as a pop culture icon was cemented in the subsequent Oscar-winning film of the same name directed by Milos Forman. In Netflix’s Ratched, executive producer and director Ryan Murphy attempts to explore the origins of the infamous nurse in an eight-episode first season that’s sadly more focused on style than substance.In terms of its visual aesthetic, Ratched is simply stunning. From the gorgeous period-specific clothing to the lavishly designed sets, every painstaking detail is displayed in colorful fashion for you to feast your eyes upon. Murphy, having created a successful lineup of shows for FX such as American Horror Story and Pose before making his 300 million-dollar move to Netflix, isn’t known for his subtlety. However, where those aforementioned series were able to strike a delicate balance between strong character development and shock and awe, Ratched appears to be more concerned with the latter.The story begins with Mildred Ratched (portrayed by Sarah Paulson) seeking employment at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California in the late 1940s. Paulson, per usual, delivers a compelling performance in this by-the-numbers script that uses the childhood trauma trope to explain why she turned out to be such an awful human being. Even with Paulson’s captivating on-screen presence, there’s something about “knowing too much” about her past that takes away from the mystery of Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance in the film. Where Fletcher’s interpretation of Ratched involved cold stares and carefully chosen manipulative words to control her patients, Paulson’s version is much more emotive and less discreet.By the time she’s weaseled her way into the hospital within the first few episodes, Ratched has already been involved in a murder cover-up, bounty hunting, and a sexually awkward encounter. There are just so many narrative threads being thrown at the viewer that it’s hard to know what exactly to focus on.
And while Paulson’s Ratched is more expressive than her film counterpart, the supporting cast is even more over-the-top than she is. Daredevil’s Vincent D’Onofrio, for example, who plays California Governor George Wilburn, is a one-note character who just bellows and hollers inappropriate things in every scene he’s in. Another example is Sharon Stone’s Lenore Osgood, an eccentric aristocrat with a monkey for a pet and a sadistic bilateral amputee for a son. Sure, Stone and D’Onofrio deliver their respective lines with gusto and as much charm as they can muster, but by the end of the series they come off as cartoonish characterizations rather than fully-formed individuals.
There are so many narrative threads being thrown at you that it’s hard to know what to focus on.
There’s also the problem of trying to determine what kind of show Ratched is trying to be: drama, horror, romance, comedy, or all of the above? In one scene, you can have Ratched confessing to a dark secret from her childhood to a close confidant, then jump to another scene where someone is chopping their own arm off with blood splattering everywhere. Ratched feels like a mishmash of all of Murphy’s previous works, laid out as an incoherent mess.Thankfully, there are some bright spots sprinkled throughout, like an endearing relationship between Cynthia Nixon’s Gwendolyn Briggs and Michael Benjamin Washington’s Trevor Briggs. The two are in an arranged marriage to hide their true identity as gay. Gwendolyn and Benjamin’s heartwarming compassion and care for one another is palpable, and the few moments they do share on-screen are some of the most memorable moments in Season 1. Perhaps if the series is renewed for a second season, the narrative will focus more on these smaller and more intimate moments, instead of the grandiose and shocking absurdities littered throughout many of the episodes. Time will tell.