By Christian DiMartino
I love Ryan Murphy and Sarah Paulson, together and separately. Both are excellent talents who bring out the best in each other, while also pretty much always delivering on their own. They’re a match made in heaven, whether it be in American Horror Story, American Crime Story, and yada yada. You know what I happen to love more though? Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, and there lies the key issue with Paulson and Murphy’s latest collaboration, Netflix’s Ratched.
This show has been on my radar for about two years. The pairing of Murphy and Paulson, along with the premise serving as an origin story to the cold, detestable Mildred Ratched (played by Paulson here, and by Louise Fletcher previously, giving one of the greatest performances known to man) just sounded too good to be true. It turns out, it kind of is. Ratched works well as entertainment, with first-rate production values and acting ranging from strong to cheerfully over-the-top. As entertainment, it’s fine, but that’s half the battle. The other half is in bringing an origin story to life, and successfully, and this, alas, is where the show steps wrong.
The show finds Paulson’s Ratched in the 1940’s, landing a gig at a mental ward, by means of manipulating the head doctor (played by the slimy Jon Jon Briones) and overthrowing the head nurse, one Nurse Bucket (Judy Davis, having a ball). Briones’ character is pretty much always up to no good, even if Ratched is making things worse for him, and he is in the process of hatching up radical new ways of therapy. All of Ratched’s efforts are in service of protecting a new inmate, a serial killer named Edmund (Finn Wittrock), who turns out to be Ratched’s brother. As the show unfolds, we see the way that these two are in cahoots, while we also focus on the antics of Edmund, Nurse Bucket, and Ratched’s blossoming sexuality.
Now again, I point out that this isn’t an effective origin story. Why? It’s simple: the Nurse Ratched on display in Ratched is a completely different person. “Well, duh, Christian, Sarah Paulson isn’t Louise Fletcher,” you’re probably thinking, and duh to you, but that’s not what I mean. Paulson’s Nurse Ratched has little to nothing in common with the source material. Fletcher’s Ratched was detestable mostly for the ways she got under the skin of the film’s hero, McMurphy (Jack Nicholson), yet also there was a certain icy coldness to her that made her repugnant, such as her careless, harsh reaction to the sudden suicide of fellow patient Billy Bibbitt, which was totally her doing… but she wanted to carry on with the day. Ratched is a character we do hate, but she’s not necessarily evil.
Paulson’s Ratched? In perhaps the second episode, she goes to visit Edmund’s only survivor (Hunter Parrish), and gives him a lobotomy to keep his mouth shut. She also unleashes Edmund at a mental institution dance, which results in bloodshed. This is not the work of a cold shrew; this is the work of evil. So if we’re comparing the two, it almost seems like over time, Fletcher’s Ratched ends up a better person? Origin stories are supposed to show how these characters ended up becoming who they are, and Ratched has the order of things backwards. Wouldn’t it have made more sense to focus on Ratched as a nice person who gradually becomes more power mad and loathesome?
Having said this, it’s not fair to judge the show for what it could’ve been (or, should’ve been), but rather, what it is. What it is is a beautiful missed opportunity. The production design, costumes, and cinematography are all first rate. Yet this series doesn’t match the tone of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in the slightest. It feels, in all honesty, like American Horror Story, and seeing as American Horror Story: Asylum is very much a thing, and also a thing that dealt with lesbianism, at times Ratched feels to be covering old ground.
Perhaps I’m being too picky. There’s things to enjoy here, I mean, that Paulson is fabulous as always and there’s barely ever a dull moment. Yet it’s just a wee bit too difficult for me to watch One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and envision Nurse Ratched as a psychopathic lesbian with a serial killer for a brother and a childhood that featured orphanages, physical abuse and sexual abuse. I hate Nurse Ratched as much as the next guy, but I remain unconvinced. The creators of this show would’ve been better off taking Nurse Ratched out of the equation and simply calling the show Nurse. The show disappointed me, but it may not disappoint you, and even though I don’t really care to see how the rest of it unfolds, I guess I’ll watch season 2.