Writer/creator/director/producer Ryan Murphy has made his mark on television with a string of distinctive dramas—from “Nip/Tuck” to “Glee” to “American Horror Story” to “Scream Queens” to “Pose” to “Feud.” All of Murphy’s various narrative obsessions and stylish visual quirks are on display in his latest effort for Netflix, the psychological thriller “Ratched.” While a prequel to Ken Kesey’s iconic counterculture novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest wouldn’t seem like the most apt source of inspiration for a lurid tale of sex, violence and well-starched dresses, this origin story of literature’s most infamous nurse more or less delivers the goods. So long as you’re into Murphy’s particular brand of over-the-top entertainment.
Murphy’s work has always sought to define the line between heightened reality and outright camp, lingering just this side of that demarcation while smoking cigarettes, sipping Martinis and generally threatening to sneak the toe of a Manolo Blahnik over into John Waters/Charles Busch territory. Combine that with a passion for mid-century Hollywood Gothic architecture and a love for shoving LGBTQ storylines to the forefront, and you’ve basically got the Ryan Murphy formula—all of which shows up in spades in “Ratched.”
Regular Murphy muse Sarah Paulson (“American Horror Story”) stars a Mildred Ratched, a buttoned-up young nurse fresh out of the Pacific Theater of World War II who shows up in the impossibly picturesque coastal California town of Lucia, round about 1947 (a good couple of decades before the events of Cuckoo’s Nest), hoping to land a job at the local mental hospital. Unflappable, and seemingly adept at lying, she manipulates her way into the good graces of the hospital’s director in extremely short order. As it turns out, however, she’s there under suspicious and deeply personal circumstances—all of them connected to the grinning hunk of a serial killer (Finn Wittrock, also from “American Horror Story”) locked up in the hospital’s basement.
Paulson nails the rigid and controlled demeanor of Nurse Ratched, most famously portrayed in an Oscar-winning turn by Louis Fletcher in the 1975 film version. This Ratched, though, is a bit more mysterious and hard to get a handle on. In Kesey’s book, and in Milos Foreman’s film, she represented the cruelty and callousness of institutional authority. Here, she’s more of a rule-breaker and a con woman. Murphy surrounds his lead with a selection of his stock players and a handful of “ringers,” including Sharon Stone as a glamorous heiress gunning for vengeance, Vincent D’Onofrio as a blowhard governor, Judy Davis as a witchy head nurse and Cynthia Nixon as a not-so-quietly closeted lesbian political aid.
Visually, the show is a stunner, with an oversaturated Max Factor color palette, some incredible location lensing along California’s Pacific Coast and a meticulously manicured sense of interior design that makes every single shot look like an impossibly glamorous mid-century modern ad from Look magazine. The storyline, continually folding in new characters, lurid twists and gory shocks, sometimes reads as rocky as that shoreline, though. One minute Ratched is gleefully ogling a grisly lobotomy procedure, the next she’s protesting the cruel use of hydrotherapy on patients. Villainous and misguided as most of the characters are here, they all appear to be romantics at heart. It isn’t long before Paulson’s nurse is vacillating between poisoning her enemies and fighting off her sapphic urge to hook up with Nixon’s aide-de-camp. The two even share a naughty seaside plate of oysters. (Somebody here watched Spartacus.) Nixon imparts a palpable vulnerability to her character. But she’s engaged in a “lavender marriage” with a gay man (Michael Benjamin Washington)—who also happens to be Black. That would have made for a pretty poor cover-up in 1947. Mixed marriage wasn’t legal in the United States until 1967.
A handful of over-the-top performances, a hermetically sealed look and some obvious anachronisms keep “Ratched” from feeling particularly realistic. Over the course of eight episodes (with a promised second season on its way), the show’s tone twitches from camp to drama to romance to eros to horror on a moment’s notice. The result is something of a sunlit noir soap opera, a Friday the 13th sequel rebooted as a Douglas Sirk melodrama. In other words: “Ratched” is one crazy show.