One of the most distracting things about Netflix‘s stunningly misguided new series Ratched is how everything looks brand new. Set largely in a psychiatric institution in 1947, you might expect to see a bit of grime, worn upholstery or some creased scrubs, but you’d be sorely mistaken. Every item of furniture appears freshly assembled from a retro IKEA collection, each vintage car looks like it just rolled out the factory, while all the costumes are perfect ensembles, right down to the ludicrously bright blue nurse outfits that impressively never have a mark on them.
Welcome to Ryan Murphy’s sickeningly stylised version of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest.
Ratched claims to be based on the cold-hearted nurse from Ken Kesey’s 1962 novel and Miloš Forman’s film adaptation, although there’s little to substantiate that besides a copyright credit in the opening titles. From the moment Sarah Paulson appears on screen, wearing a jacket embroidered with a comical bright red ‘R’, it becomes quite clear that exec producer Murphy, series creator Evan Romansky and company has reduced the character down to the most simplistic interpretation imaginable.
Gone is the notion that Ratched could be an ordinary person embittered by years in a difficult job and corrupted by absolute power over her ward. That would require nuance. Instead, we meet a scheming mastermind and sociopath, who ends the first episode by explicitly convincing a man to take his own life, and develops a macabre obsession with lobotomisation immediately after. It’s as if the writers based this entire series on the final 10 minutes of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.
Paulson gives a confused performance, bouncing from patronising speeches delivered in monotone, to the occasional teary-eyed lip quiver when her character suffers from a random bout of empathy. The naturalistic dialogue of Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched is scrapped in favour of Ryan Murphy’s agonising blend of passive aggressive quips and melodrama. The lame attempts at humour serve only to keep the tone utterly disjointed, with Amanda Plummer’s comic relief role particularly irritating.
If Nurse Ratched has lost any semblance of realism under Murphy’s hand, the same must be said for her patients. Ken Kesey’s original characters were inspired by his time working as an orderly at a mental health facility, but these more closely resemble American Horror Story rejects with little personality beyond their afflictions. Sophie Okonedo gives her all as the most developed patient on the show, but her performance often feels overdone and the manner in which her character is routinely traumatised throughout the season feels uncomfortably cruel.
In general, this series strikes a consistently mean-spirited tone, exhibiting sadistic acts against vulnerable people in virtually every episode. Ratched herself is given a truly disturbing origin, the details of which are needlessly repeated in two consecutive scenes, as if you might have forgotten them otherwise. Without any storyline of substance, these instances appear unforgivably gratuitous.
What little plot there is to scrape together revolves around a serial killer arriving at Ratched’s asylum for an assessment of his sanity, a premise that briefly mirrors that of Kesey’s novel before spiralling off into complete idiocy. The whole miserable affair fails to conjure up a single interesting idea or likeable character, with a laughable attempt at a Bonnie and Clyde romance among the laziest offences.
I’m left completely bewildered as to the motivation behind this series. It certainly wasn’t to explore the early years of Nurse Ratched, who is completely unrecognisable in every regard; never before has a prequel failed this badly to capture a single thing about what made its central character so fascinating. Sarah Paulson deserves better, and so do we.