Ryan Murphy’s ‘Ratched’ Gets Deranged in Lush Technicolor Style

When Netflix granted maverick producer Ryan Murphy carte blanche to make original content, they essentially unleashed his obsession with aesthetic. When approaching his latest Netflix offering, “Ratched,” understanding the Murphy look and feel is key. Officially this is some kind of prequel about Nurse Ratched, the domineering, dark authoritarian in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” made iconic by Louise Fletcher. But dismiss the 1975 movie, or even the original 1962 Ken Kesey novel. It doesn’t matter if you’ve never seen the movie or read the book. This series has no connection to them aside from the character’s last name. The rest is pure, demented reinvention, sometimes bordering on goofy, but never boring to look at. 

In the Murphy universe it all begins with murder. It’s the early ‘50s and a young man named Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) flips out and kills several priests, apparently convinced one was his father. Edmund will surely face execution and is sent to the Lucia State Hospital, located in a picturesque spot in California. It is here where Nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives looking for work. Stern and focused, Ratchd nearly intimidates the hospital’s chief doctor, Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). Hanover is desperate for funding, practically begging the state governor, George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio). Ratched doesn’t mind the lack of positions, she finds a way to push one nurse out and get her spot. It’s soon evident her real reason for being at the hospital is to get close to Edmund. The killer will soon become the poster child for the hospital’s rehabilitation efforts, which verge from misguided to horrific. Ratched will become a player in it all, even connecting romantically with another character in ways she would have never dreamed.

“Ratched” is not necessarily a creation of Murphy. Some attention has been given to how it began as a spec script by Loyola Marymount University film student Evan Romansky four years ago. Along with Murphy, Michael Douglas, who produced the 1975 movie, is also tapped as a producer here. However there is no denying the real force behind the show. Murphy’s stamp is on every episode. It’s a better entertainment than his “Hollywood” series from earlier this year, a revisionist history of the Hollywood Golden Age. But like that series, “Ratched” works best as a visual experiment than as a story. While it’s a timeless classic, “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is not “Star Wars,” so it’s not as if audiences have been dying for a prequel. So Murphey lets loose, making every chapter a mad melodrama with heightened colors, camera angles that are obvious homages to Alfred Hitchcock and Brian De Palma, and a music score taken straight out of “Cape Fear” or “Psycho.” Many sequences find Ratched walking down a hall as the lighting turns to a hypnotic green or red. The décor, even of the Lucia State Hospital, is lush and seductive to the eye. Never has a mental institution looked this alluring anywhere else. It could be a spa from hell. There are individual moments that can be enjoyed just for Murphy’s fixation on details, like a seaside meal between Ratched and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), who works for the governor and gets very close to the nurse. Ratched tastes oysters for the first time, and the scene is done in a way where we can almost taste them ourselves. 

If “Ratched” is seductive in terms of its visuals, the overall narrative suffers from too little story for too many episodes syndrome. It is a condition all too common in the Peak TV era. Some ideas would work just fine as TV movies, but Murphy and his team keep putting together concepts that then need to be stretched out for eight episodes. Ratched’s relationship with Edmund and what it means get very dragged out, all so it can climax in the season finale with an anti-climactic goodbye (which also feels like a setup for a second season). Many characters get juggled around but don’t develop, like Sharon Stone as an obscenely wealthy mother seeking revenge on Hanover for his treatment of her psychotic son, or Corey Stoll as a noir snoop who Ratched introduces to intense, roleplay sex. It’s all setups for setups, meaning Murphy seems to create these characters for a few scenes where they can indulge in his creative fetishes. Some of the sequences alone are wickedly sick entertainment, like Stone’s son sawing off his own arms in a flashback, or Ratched making the snoop think they’re having sex in some war zone. Ratched’s possible nemesis at the hospital, head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), has some memorably insane moments, like forcing a lesbian patient to be trapped in a tub of boiling water to “cure her condition.” But her relationship to Ratched also fizzles into a rather bland compromise by the end.

The stronger angle in the narrative is Ratched’s relationship with Gwendolyn, which is another chance for the producer to add his trademark touch of exploring sexual taboos during the Greatest Generation. Gwendolyn is married to a gay power player, who is Black and needs a good cover to make partner at his firm. At the hospital any hint of homosexual traits means a lobotomy is in order, which Hanover does conduct a few times, particularly in a hilarious scene involving a few fainting nurses. You’ll learn that the best spot to aim for the procedure are the eyelids. Yet the Ratched and Gwendolyn story, which has some touching moments, feels like a completely different show trapped in the one about trying to save Edmund, corrupt governors who wants public executions for votes, and crazy hospital directors determined to carry out odd experiments. 

So what else is there to be said about this latest opus from Murphy? In addition to the show’s rich look, which is nirvana for fans of classic directors like Douglas Sirk (if Sirk were also deranged), the best thing about “Ratched” is Sarah Paulson. She makes the role her own, bringing to it that kind of serious, focused intimidation she’s displayed so well in other movies. There are scenes where she admits her own madness, but with that Paulson smile that makes insanity seem as sweet as a grandmother. She never tries to even channel Louise Fletcher, which would have been a mistake anyway. The original “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is famous as a film about Jack Nicholson stuck in an asylum under the eye of Ratched, but it was also a political allegory about repression. Ratched in the book and film was a metaphor for the U.S. government shutting down Vietnam War protests, or the Stasi in East Germany, the Savak in Iran, you name it. “Ratched” has no social or political subtext aside from its dabbling in the sexual taboos of the ‘50s. 

Because Ryan Murphy is such a master of style, his work on Netflix, as opposed to his all-around stellar shows on FX, like “Pose,” challenges us with how he can make a bland narrative quite entertaining. Much of “Ratched” is overwrought, bordering on silly when it really goes for B-movie terror or soapy melodrama. But is it ever boring? It depends what form of TV drug you’re into. 

Ratched” season one begins streaming Sept. 18 on Netflix.