Mildred Ratched first appears in the Netflix series that bears her name as a cartoon villainess. Gazing disapprovingly — or analytically — at a couple mid-PDA from her turquoise car, the future antagonist of Ken Kesey’s novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (played in the Milos Forman film adaptation by Louise Fletcher, who won an Oscar for her performance) cuts a gas-station attendant down to size for making friendly if annoying chitchat. “You should bathe more often,” this Nurse Ratched (played by Sarah Paulson) tells him, her blood-hued lips matching her scarlet driving gloves, neck scarf and the large, cursive “R” on her coat. She’s dressed to oppress.
But Ratched’s prequel status means that Mildred has yet to fully embrace her darkness. Set in 1947 (a year before Hollywood, executive producer and pilot director Ryan Murphy’s previous drama for Netflix), Ratched posits its title character as an antiheroine already frightening in her disregard for human life, but touchingly naive in other respects. Since 45-year-old Paulson is older than Fletcher was when the latter shot One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, it’s not entirely clear at what life stage we find this Mildred. She’s written as a mystery — but one whose initially compelling self-contradictions can’t push the eight-part debut season forward when it runs out of steam midway through.
Ratched is shot in candy-coated Technicolor, but the pulpy melodrama owes much to Murphy’s American Horror Story. Created by Evan Romansky, it’s in many ways a quasi-tasteful (read: more boring) remix of the FX series’ most creatively successful season, Asylum, which also marked Paulson’s first starring role on AHS. Gone are the alien abductions, Nazi death doctors, killer nuns and Oedipally obsessed serial killers that made Asylum such a gonzo delight. Though it occasionally mistakes “scary” for “hard to watch,” Ratched displays a lot more narrative discipline. And yet the whole feels lesser than the sum of its parts.
But what parts! Production designer Judy Becker and costume designers Lou Eyrich and Rebecca Guzzi (all frequent Murphy collaborators) ensure there’s always something to admire, especially at the luxurious psychiatric hospital in California’s Central Coast where most of the series takes place. (It’s actually supposed to be an underfunded state institution, but its resemblance to an immaculate, boldly decorated five-star hotel is explained away via the building’s previous use as a spa.)
Ratched begins with former wartime nurse Mildred in search of a job at the same facility where the killer of four priests, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), is to be housed and diagnosed before facing trial. Depending on the asker, Mildred offers varying accounts of her feelings toward Tolleson, though it’s clear that she considers him, like herself, an in-between creature, somewhere between human and monster. In the meantime, Mildred’s soon-to-be colleagues can barely stand her. Even the hospital’s sole doctor, the secretive and ethically challenged Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), is quickly appalled by Mildred’s shortcuts, while its head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), never found much to be impressed with in the first place.
The series welds the American Horror Story elements to a soap-operatic noir mystery, with a private eye (Corey Stoll) staying in Mildred’s motel eventually bringing to town his eccentric gajillionaire client Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), who wears matching dresses with the monkey always on her shoulder. (That sight alone might be worth watching Ratched for.) The notoriety of Tolleson’s case also attracts the attention of the governor (Vincent D’Onofrio) and his press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon). Sophie Okonedo, Amanda Plummer and Rosanna Arquette enjoy showy if smaller roles, continuing the AHS tradition of giving character actresses of a certain age the kind of flamboyantly twisted parts the industry seldom reserves for older women.
The performances are across-the-board fantastic, but Nixon — playing Mildred’s love interest — exhibits such frailty, sensuality and decency that her turn ultimately ends up feeling like it belongs in a much better production. (An oyster-eating scene between the reticent, touch-averse Mildred and the generous but guarded Gwendolyn in the second episode, directed by Murphy, is destined to be savored over and over by a certain segment of the viewership.)
But, as in AHS, the excellent acting can’t make up for the relative thinness of the characterizations, which are sacrificed here for the scaffolding for season two. (Greenlit for two seasons, Ratched is apparently plotted out for a four-year run, with the final season to feature a showdown between Mildred and her One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest foe Randle McMurphy, played by Jack Nicholson in the film.)
Of course, a familiarity with the “source material” isn’t necessary to engage with Ratched, which continues to offer visual splendor — and an unusual and highly welcome romance — well beyond the satiation point. Well, you think you’ve had enough — and then comes a capuchin in a mint bejeweled gown atop a fur-capped Sharon Stone, whetting once more your appetite for excess.
Cast: Sarah Paulson, Finn Wittrock, Cynthia Nixon, Jon Jon Briones, Charlie Carver, Judy Davis, Sharon Stone
Creator: Evan Romansky
Developed by: Ryan Murphy
Premieres Friday, Sep. 18, on Netflix