1975’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest has stood the test of time as one of the best films to emerge from the New Hollywood of the ‘70s. Besides its impressive five Oscar wins, including Best Picture, Milos Forman’s classic drama endures because it didn’t trivialize mental health issues of its characters. It presented them with unflinching empathy in the face of an uncaring administrative state. The avatar of that uncaring administrative state was Nurse Ratched, played in the original film with stoic cruelty by Louise Fletcher. The character became iconic. Her name was shorthand for steely indifference in the face of suffering and the character was named by AFI as one of the greatest villainesses of all time.
Despite the character’s steeliness and reputation, one thing that Nurse Ratched lacked in the film was anything resembling an interior. The character has no backstory. There’s no motivation for her cruel actions. That, however, just wouldn’t do for trashy TV mastermind Ryan Murphy who has decided along with series creator Evan Romansky that Nurse Ratched needed a full-fledged backstory with the Netflix series Ratched. This show is truly astonishing achievement. Ratched somehow trivializes everything that made One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest a timeless work, simultaneously treating mental illness as pulpy plot device and turning this iconic avatar of the institutional malice into a trashy TV anti-hero. Simply put, Ratched is wretched.
Longtime Ryan Murphy collaborator Sarah Paulson steps into the role of a younger Mildred Ratched as she takes a position in a mental hospital in northern California shortly after the end of World War II. At the Lucia State Hospital, Ratched starts working under Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and his fiercely loyal head nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). The hospital is set to receive a high profile prisoner in Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), recently captured for the brutal murder of multiple Catholic priests. The inmate’s arrival pushes Lucia State Hospital to the center of the political world as Governor George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio) is a contentious reelection fight and wants a prompt execution of Tolleson to give his campaign a much-needed boost.
There’s so much swirling around this little mental institution, with practically everyone in its hall harboring some kind of startling secret and secrets within secrets. On the outskirts of the town, there’s even more intrigue with a private investigator Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll) working on behalf of the wealthy socialite Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), always accompanied by the pet monkey that resides on her shoulder. Meanwhile, the young nurse Dolly (Alice Englert) starts falling for the murderous Edmund Tolleson as Governor Wilburn’s press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) starts having feelings for Mildred Ratched.
Over the course of the eight episodes of its inaugural season, Ratched deals with sexual abuse, lingering trauma, lobotomies, repressed sexuality, murders, amputations, multiple personalities, hypnosis, and cold-blooded revenge. It should be noted that this show doesn’t handle any of these matters with any tact or sensitivity. They are nothing more than cheap plot devices, which might work as trashy entertainment if the show hadn’t tethered itself to a humane, empathetic classic that took mental health seriously. Ratched is trying so hard to reverse engineer a reason for the character’s cruelty in the film that it seeks to give her a series of complications and unresolved traumas that make the character more like a prestige television anti-hero working in a mental hospital than a cruel nurse in abdication of her true duty.
The talented cast of Ratched does their best with what’s presented to them, but they’re constantly let down by the writing which always prioritizes shlocky sensationalism over human drama. At each and every turn, and there are many in each episode, the show flies further and further off the rails. Eventually it reached a point where I was just left to wonder who wanted this show. It’s connection to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is superficial at best and loathsome at worst, and it’s most often the latter. To add insult to injury, Ratched often devolves into camp, which again might be entertaining if this was just a trashy TV show unattached to a cinematic classic.
The one thing that does stand out about Ratched – and the only objectively positive thing I can say about the show – is the incredible work of its production design team. The show has a nice sheen to it thanks to the well-crafted sets and vibrant costume design. The look of the characters and locations has a kind of ultra-stylized rendition of the post-war era, teeming with color and a glossy veneer that provides a bit of distraction from the escalating insanity of the show’s exploitative plot.
The coldness of Nurse Ratched and the institutional rot that she embodied is not the byproduct of repressed trauma or dealing with patients who have committed sensationalized crimes. Institutional rot is cultural, coming from bureaucratic indifference that places the status quo above the health and wellbeing of those they serve. Ratched is a show that embodies a different kind of institutional rot. It is another example of studios and networks choosing to lean on a familiar name, character, or intellectual property instead of taking a modest chance with something unfamiliar. These towering institutions are desperate to maintain their status quo they’ll enlist someone like Ryan Murphy to make a show based upon a movie that he fundamentally doesn’t understand. Thankfully One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is a great enough movie that no ham-fisted attempt to cash in on its cultural clout can ruin its legacy. Now if only I could be lobotomized so I can entirely forget the hours I wasted watching Ratched.
Drawing its inspiration from a movie it fundamentally doesn’t understand, Ryan Murphy’s Ratched attempts to give the iconic character of Nurse Ratched a trashy origin story in a show that trivializes the mental health issues so empathetically portrayed in the classic film One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.