Prequels can be tricky things. While usually conceived with the best of intentions at heart, telling the origin or even just the story before the story for any existing property or character often falls flat either by missing the mark or twisting the familiar into something completely unrecognizable. Ryan Murphy's latest Netflix offering, Ratched, takes up the prequel challenge for one of fiction's most chilling figures, the monstrous and sadistic Nurse Mildred Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. What is intended to be a glimpse at how the terrifying character became the vicious creature from Ken Kesey's book and the film of the same name not only fails to do so, but also ends up being nearly indistinguishable from Murphy's other endeavors: a stylish spectacle without substance that is little more than ill-considered fan fiction.
Ratched picks up Mildred's story in 1947 where it sees her seeking employment at California's Lucia State Hospital, but it becomes quickly apparent that there is more to Mildred than meets the eye as she harbors terrible secrets and dark designs. And the secrets don't stop with Mildred. Nearly everyone in the eight-episode series has something to hide and a darkness that they are running from in one form or another and, ultimately, those secrets all end up tangled into Mildred's mess -- all of which is centered around the disturbed killer Edmund Tolleson who ends up at Lucia after the brutal murder of four priests.
If that description is vague, it's on purpose. The storylines of Ratched are so convoluted that even spoilers won't really help a viewer and, truthfully, going into Ratched knowing as little as possible is a massive benefit for one simple reason: this series has absolutely nothing to do with One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. The Mildred Ratched presented here is a such a far cry from that of the film and novel that if you simply changed her name you'd not even know the series was supposed to be a prequel origin story.
The convoluted nature of Ratched's story extends to nearly every detail. While the series was touted as showing how Mildred becomes a monster, the truth is that never actually happens. She's brutal and monstrous when we meet her and, if anything, regresses into something more human by the series' end, which utterly defeats the purpose of the series in the first place. On top of that, Ratched rapidly descends into Murphy's very obvious brand of chic torture porn where, at every possible turn, viewers are confronted with elegant disfigurement, strange fixations on sexuality -- especially female homosexuality -- and gruesome, bloody, gratuitous violence, packaged here as mental health treatments. Toss in a little unnecessary exoticism -- another Murphy favorite -- and you get what ends up as a dressed-up, bigger budget version of American Horror Story, complete with a familiar cast. And all of that is before you even get to the rather troubling ways the series approaches mental illness. Even for a series set in a time when the approach to such things was grim at best, Ratched feels cruel and exploitative. It's not good.
Despite the velvet and vintage drenched and carefully orchestrated mess, however, what finds a way to rise above are a handful of performances. Judy Davis manages to make you both love and hate Nurse Betsy Bucket at various points in the series and somehow gives her the humanity that makes the swing in estimation of her feel natural. Cynthia Nixon's Gwendolyn Briggs may seem like an unnecessary character, but Nixon plays her beautifully and elegantly. And while her character, Charlotte Wells, is little more than a gross mental health stereotype written up for shock value, Sophie Okonedo delivers her performance with precision and gusto. She’s frankly better than the series deserves.
But a few performances can't save everything. Sarah Paulson is a solid performer generally, but her Mildred Ratched feels like she's simply recycling her Ms. Venable from American Horror Story: Apocalypse for much of the series, though when we do get to the "humanity" of Mildred Ratched, Paulson delivers a fine performance. Finn Wittrock's Edmund is more weird than chilling, even when we're supposed to see him as human, and Jon Jon Briones is never really given much of a chance to shine with Dr. Richard Hanover, which is truly a shame. Also burdening the series is a lot of ham-fisted political commentary and an entirely weird secondary plot involving wealthy heiress Lenore Osgood and her psychotic son that even some truly delightful scenery-chewing by Sharon Stone cannot force into making sense.
While the idea of trying to understand how Nurse Mildred Ratched became Nurse Mildred Ratched is an intriguing one, this series completely wastes it. On its own, without the iconic character attached, the series itself might be passable as just another oversexed and exploitative Murphy fairy tale quickly forgotten, but by trying to package it as a fresh exploration of a well-known character, Ratched doesn't just insult its spiritual source material, it wastes the viewer’s time.
Rating: 2 out of 5
Ratched debuts on Netflix on Friday, September 18th.