Based on the infamous antagonist of Ken Kesey’s popular novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, as well as the acclaimed 1975 film of the same name, Evan Romanski and Ryan Murphy’s prequel series sees Sarah Paulson stepping into the role of “Big Nurse” Mildred Ratched and sees her manipulating her way into gaining employment at an institution in Northern California, taking an interest in the case of one particular patient who brutally murdered four priests in cold blood. As she makes her plans and manoeuvres her way through the hospital, she soon crosses paths with calculating socialites, corrupt politicians, sleazy assassins, mysterious doctors, and a romantic relationship that will make her question everything she thinks she knows, and she must use all of her guile and intelligence to stay one step ahead of the forces who oppose her.
On paper, the idea of a brand new series that aims to provide an origin story to one of cinema’s greatest villains seems a bit superfluous and unwanted, and in all honesty, I didn’t fully believe that the events of the series could have happened to the character as we know her, but whether or not the creative team really got it right, whether or not they truly understand the complexities of the popular character, Ratched is nonetheless a great series in its own right and provides us with plenty of compelling drama, bloody violence, and dark humour for us to sink our teeth into.
As I say, I didn’t fully accept Ratched as a genuine prequel as the storylines, as well as the actions and motivations of the central character, seems like too much of a departure from the material of both Kesey’s novel and Miloš Forman’s acclaimed film and I believed there to be an abundance of 21st century “sensibilities” within the series (i.e. even though the series takes place in the late forties, it weirdly feels too “modern” and it’s too clear that the material has come from a 21st century mind – if that makes any sense!) and I get the feeling that the creators don’t truly understand the character and that they’ve used a basic outline of the character and have subsequently used that as a “springboard” to create the series that they want. I also have to admit that visually, the series looks a bit too “Murphy-esque”, by which I mean they went a little overboard with the striking primary colours and the abundance of colour is, for me, too much of a departure from the muted and grim atmosphere of the 1975 film.
But that aside, Ratched is still a great series in its own right, and it succeeds as a compelling drama; as Ratched is drawn into a world of murderous plots and various shifty people, the series is given a palpable noir-ish atmosphere (further accentuated by the score, which strives to give off a Hitchcockian atmosphere and which explicitly uses several Bernard Herrmann musical cues from films such as Psycho, Vertigo and Cape Fear) and all of the shady dealings, numerous plot twists, and scenes of murder and horror are tantalising, more than capable of hooking the audience and getting them on the edge of their seats. It doesn’t go overboard with the various plot developments and twists, keeping things easy enough to understand, and the story is thankfully an exciting and intriguing one, full of dark and disturbing themes and with rarely a dull moment throughout its eight episode run, and it often displays a sense of dark humour that fits in very well to the series.
Stepping into the role that Louise Fletcher made so memorable back in 1975, winning an Academy Award for her efforts in the process, Sarah Paulson doesn’t quite make as much of an impact and doesn’t inspire much dread or unease (though this may be down to the writing and characterisation) but she is still effective in the role and does something a little different with the character; at the start, she is particularly robotic, never smiling as she puts her plan into motion and subtly manipulates those around her to get what she wants but as she meets certain people later on, she noticeably “warms up” and shows that she cares for some people and does what she can to keep order. Now, I’m not too sure that I like the idea of Ratched actually having a heart and acting compassionately towards certain people and it’s strange how the writers have taken a well known villain/monster and have gone on to make her more of a heroine in her own series as this really does seem out of character, but Sarah Paulson is a constantly magnetic presence and she does well in showing Ratched’s initially cold and calculating demeanour, later exploring different aspects of the character by showing determination, affection, and, at times, uncertainty as she grapples with the feelings within herself.
In supporting roles, Sharon Stone looks like she’s having a ball in the role of the scheming socialite who Ratched soon crosses paths with, gleefully chewing the scenery and having fun with the character, Judy Davis is always interesting to watch as Nurse Bucket, initially appearing as a hostile rival to Ratched but then developing a very different kind of relationship with her (which is also a shame as I think it would’ve been more satisfying for her to remain an antagonist, giving Ratched a chance to exact some kind of horrible revenge on her), Cynthia Nixon works well as the romantic interest of the piece, appearing confident and allowing Ratched some interesting character development, Amanda Plummer is delightfully nuts as the nosey motel manager, Charlie Carver is instantly likeable and supportive as the facially scarred nurse who becomes an ally to Ratched, Vincent D’Onofrio is sleazy and nasty as the crooked, antagonistic governor, and Finn Wittrock is suitably menacing, intimidating and unpredictable as the plot essential murderer, though he also demonstrates some compassion and affection at particular moments.