Last week, your girl Bianca del Rio tweeted about what 2020 feels like by comparing it to a Ryan Murphy show – the crux of the joke (with an emoji as the punchline) was that it started off ok and then quickly went to hell. This sums up Ratched, the new Netflix prequel to One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (created by Evan Romanesky and developed by Murphy), a convoluted origin story that throws the novel’s infamous nurse villain into a messy lesbian-themed horror drama set in a mental hospital.
Taking place 15 or so years before the events in Ken Kesey’s novel, the show opens with madman Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) murdering a bunch of priests (so far so good). Cut to Nurse Ratched (Sarah Paulson) applying for a job at Lucia State Hospital, an institution headed by the lobotomy-loving Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). The series eventually bridges these two stories (in ways Netflix asked us not to reveal), but gets bogged down in multiple subplots including a gubernatorial race (with a bored-looking Vincent D’Onofrio and Cynthia Nixon), a shady heiress (Sharon Stone, camping it up), a competitive head nurse (the incomparable Judy Davis), and a lot of ridiculousness.
So, this is gorgeously produced but none of it makes any goddamn sense, mostly because each episode piles on new information that simply doesn’t add any drama to the pilot’s decent setup (which lets us in early on Ratched’s big devious plan). Characters constantly shift alliances and motivations, making it impossible to even figure out who we’re supposed to root for (if anyone). In this bizarro world, everyone is kind of evil and has a traumatic story to back up their bad behavior – the show’s gleefully ugly and cruel tone reaches its nadir in the sixth episode where one character’s childhood sexual abuse comes to life in a demented puppet show. Things nosedive even further by adding another “important’ character in the next episode before crashing and burning in its ludicrous finale.
There’s a scene in Public Speaking (Martin Scorsese’s documentary about Fran Lebowitz) where the author talks about how everything these days is “soaked in nostalgia” and just an “endless recycling of culture,” and Ratched continuously suffers from this problem. The Elmer Bernstein horns snatched from Cape Fear, the obvious Alfred Hitchcock/Douglas Sirk references, the lesbian subplot that’s like a horror-infused version of Carol, and the liberties taken with the source material…it all comes off like bootleg Quentin Tarantino filmmaking (but gay!), an expensive post-camp mashup of pop references that are pretty to look at but leave you feeling a little dead inside.
Ratched premieres September 18 on Netflix