Ratched: Season One Review
The idea of a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest from Ryan Murphy sounds like a devilishly good idea on paper. In practice, however, the results are substantially mixed, like all of Murphy's series since he made his mega-bucks deal with Netflix.
A television series with Murphy attached, either as a creator or executive producer and occasional director still has a certain cache to it; hence the excitement and hype marking the arrival of his latest series. However, it's becoming clear that his Netflix output is somewhat lacking in the ways that his plethora of work for FX did not.
Murphy is something of a unique talent amongst the sea of so-called television auteurs who have risen to prominence in the era of television's Golden Age and Peak-TV. His series have been massive successes commercially, critically acclaimed in many quarters and yet have straddled the line between artistic integrity and entertaining schlock.
Glee was a massive success for the Fox Network, a commercial hit that ensnared a mass audience and huge soundtrack sales, while American Horror Story paid glorious tribute to the history of American horror films and yet was unafraid to push the boundaries of content and taste. Yet, compare that to American Crime Story, which admittedly he only produced and directed with the writing done by the likes of Scott Alexander, Larry Karasewski and Tim Rob Smith, and we were treated to intelligent depictions not only of the true stories they were depicting but were also holding a critical mirror up to modern America's relationship with race and attitudes towards the LGBTQ community.
These have been dazzling shows, and while not everything he has done has stuck the landing, attaching his name to things like American Crime Story and the masterpiece that is Steven Canals' Pose has allowed stories that might otherwise not have been told to make it to the airwaves. Pose in particular has a genuine right to be labelled one of the very best shows on television.
Looking at his contributions to Netflix so far and things have been all over the place. The Politician began entertainingly but was unable to sustain itself creatively with a messy second season, while Hollywood must surely rank as one of the most naive television series ever produced, a wish-fulfilment fantasy that meant well but ending up trivialising Hollywood's issues with race, sexism, sexual assault and mistreatment of those in the LGBTQ community.
Into this era of Murphy-productions arrives Ratched, his third Netflix series within a year and initially it looks as if we're back in American Horror Story mode. That, unfortunately, is a problem here. A prequel to one of the most infamous villains from 70s American cinema is an enticing prospect, not least having Sarah Paulson playing the role.
The approach, however, is all wrong. Right from the opening sequence, one could be forgiven for thinking that we've stumbled into a new season of American Horror Story itself, with a household of priests, one who is masturbating to a pornographic magazine, being murdered graphically. It should be shocking, but this being Murphy and the fact that he's done it all with Horror Story means that it's less impactful and somewhat eye rollingly boring. The inclusion of Bernard Herrmann's music from Cape Fear as well as a plethora of references to famous genre films from the history of American cinema just makes it feel less likes its own thing and more of a jukebox genre piece.
Into the narrative arrives Nurse Ratched, Paulson walking into a glossy, well put together series that looks and feels like pure Ryan Murphy. The period details are down to a tee, the colours of the set and costume designs almost popping on an HD television, and all sorts of lurid subject matter dotted into the storytelling.
It becomes clear as the season continues that Ratched owes less to the movie that it's functioning as the prequel to and more to the Ryan Murphy machine. That wouldn't be a problem if Murphy's brand of television could still deliver the goods, but honestly, everything has felt tired and uninspired since the Netflix move, with quality making way for quantity. Netflix clearly wants content that they know Murphy can produce in vast (and fast) amounts, but it's clear that creatively things are nowhere near as brilliant as they once were.
Watching Paulson manipulate her way into a psychiatric hospital where the priest murdering psychopath, who turns out to be her foster brother, is being incarcerated, isn't without entertainment value. Paulson is fantastic and performs the role superbly and fills the shoes of Louise Fletcher magnificently. It's just a shame the writing can't match the work she's putting in. She ends up having to literally carry the series.
Worse yet, the series falls into the trap of so many prequel stories of late. Like Todd Phillips' Joker and HBO's Perry Mason, it takes an established character from a well-known piece of media and puts them into something different and a world away from the thing that made them famous in the first place. Perry Mason managed to stick the landing. Joker might have been a commercial success but it left others (myself included) cold.
To take a character like Ratched, cast an actress as truly talented as Paulson in the role and to reclaim her story and make her the focus of it is a brilliant idea and one worthy of a television series. However, the fatal flaw here is to give it to Murphy and watch him try to reclaim those American Horror Story glory days with it. It's a shame because it could have, and should have, been so much better.