At this point, there are several things you’re almost sure to encounter when diving into one of Ryan Murphy’s gilded television worlds. No matter where or when it’s set, the show will have impeccable, eye-popping costume and production design. No matter how it unfolds, it will do its damndest to shock and awe, probably by putting characters through an incredible amount of psychological and/or physical distress. No matter what it’s about, it will feature several deliciously dramatic turns from actors ready to chew up and spit out every ounce of scenery they get. His new Netflix drama “Ratched” ticks off every one of these boxes and then some with the kind of gory flair that Murphy’s leaned into for projects from “Nip/Tuck” to “American Horror Story.” It even stars his muse, Sarah Paulson, in a role that requires her to be flinty, cruel, compassionate and lovelorn all at once. But as an ostensible origin story for Nurse Ratched, the towering villain of Ken Kesey’s “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest,” “Ratched” is a confusing character study that never quite gets a grip on the character it’s studying.
The series, originally conceived by first-time writer Evan Romansky before Murphy and producer Ian Brennan further developed it, picks up with Mildred Ratched (Paulson) maneuvering her way into a nurse job at a Northern California psychiatric hospital in 1947, some 15 years before the catastrophic events of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.” (It also appears to take place in some alternate reality where Ratched isn’t a cruel racist; it will be at least somewhat interesting to see what, if anything, the series does to shift her in that direction as it inches closer to the events of Kesey’s novel.) Mildred is tight-lipped, blunt and particularly skilled at meticulously manipulating those around her in order to get what she wants. She quickly clocks the scattered head of the hospital, Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), as an easy mark to help her achieve her goals, and his head nurse Betsy Bucket (a wonderfully funny Judy Davis) as a frustrating obstacle standing in the way of them.
Romansky’s Mildred, unlike Kesey’s and Louise Fletcher’s of the Milos Forman film, seems at least somewhat interested in the well-being of others. It’s just that her definition of what constitutes “well-being” is constantly shifting according to who she’s training her unnervingly steady gaze upon — and for all its ambition in unpacking that distinction, “Ratched” has trouble keeping up. The closest she gets to being some facsimile of herself is with kindly nurse Huck (Charlie Carver), charismatic serial killer Edmund (Finn Wittrock, doing the absolute most) and Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon), a beguiling political aide who sees through Mildred faster than anyone. But Mildred is so controlled and inscrutable as a character that the moments when she appears to be sharing her true feelings are more suspect than revealing.
Another problem is that despite its best and most obvious attempts, “Ratched” is more unsettling than truly frightening. The show’s angular directing style, set by Murphy in the first episode, deliberately evokes Hitchcockian horror, though it rarely displays any of that director’s subtlety or intrigue. Each of the many interlocking plot threads has some catastrophic climax, raising the stakes with slashes of gory violence rather than solid story beats. Not even the likes of Sharon Stone guest starring as a furious heiress with a glamorous monkey sidekick can lift “Ratched” out of its confusing narrative mire (though in fairness to Stone, she’s fantastic nonetheless).
There will undoubtedly be enough viewers who just want a quick dose of creepy body horror this autumn without thinking too hard about What It All Means. But the series’ inability to sell its most personally devastating moments keeps “Ratched” from ever being as effective as it could be. Mildred’s horrifying past unfurls in fits and starts; by the time the full picture emerges, it’s as subtle as an icepick to the eye. (A real moment in the show, so beware, queasy viewers.) Dr. Hanover’s shady background and nebulous motives make him a cipher of a character where a dynamic center should be. Worse still, the hospital’s revolving door of patients combined with the show’s slippery grasp of mental illness and disabilities makes “Ratched” feel like a grab bag of trauma rather than even a cursory examination of how badly unwell people have been treated and misunderstood over the years. Performances like that of Sophie Okonedo as a patient suffering from a post-traumatic break deserve more consideration and depth than the script grants them.
It will surprise no one familiar with the Murphy brand of horror to know that Paulson crushes the material she’s given, and that the physical world she and her costars inhabit is uniquely lush, peculiar and macabre. It’s a shame, then, that it’s also frustratingly opaque, gratuitously unpleasant and shortsighted in its attempts to be as grim and grisly as possible. By the season finale, anyone asking why we needed a Nurse Ratched backstory like this may walk away even more confused. It may in fact be easier to think of the Ratched of “Ratched” as completely divorced from the one she’s supposed to evolve into — but that’s also going against the entire reason for the show’s existence, so really, what’s the point?
“Ratched” premieres Friday, September 18 on Netflix. (8 episodes; all reviewed.)