Despite the impressive credentials of the showrunners and the ensemble cast, the Netflix original series “Ratched” is a steaming bag of garbage wrapped in Technicolor ribbons and bows. This is an origins story about one of the most memorable movie villains of all time, but it doesn’t feel connected in any way, shape or form to that character — so why was this lurid gore-fest framed as a prequel in the first place?
The villain in question is one Nurse Mildred Ratched, created by Ken Kesey for the novel “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” and brought to life (with Oscar-winning success) by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman’s iconic 1975 film of the same name. The movie was set primarily in a mental institution in the early 1960s; the series kicks off about 15 years earlier, with Sarah Paulson now playing the young and ambitious and scheming Nurse Ratched, who displays little of the bureaucratic coldness and unnerving calm of Fletcher’s Ratched. (Paulson is roughly the same age as Fletcher when “Cuckoo’s Nest” was made, which further contributes to the wobbly nature of the timeline.)
The prolific and gifted Ryan Murphy (“Nip/Tuck,” “Glee,” “The Politician”) is the co-creator of “Ratched” and he directs the series premiere, and you can see Murphy’s penchant for candy-colored, coordinated visuals in nearly every shot, while the pulpy melodrama of the storylines is pure “American Horror Story.” Paulson’s Mildred Ratched has a disarming way of speaking bluntly and verbally slicing adversaries to ribbons, even as she sports coordinated ensembles of tangerine and turquoise, and comports herself as a woman of education and breeding, which may or may not be true.
Mildred checks into a seedy motel along California’s Central Coast and wheedles her way into a job as a nurse at an enormous mental institution that looks more like a five-star luxury hotel. (The conceit is the building was formerly a spa.) This place is so lavishly appointed, when a spree killer is brought in and kept from the general population, they hold him in isolation downstairs — in what used to be the wine cellar. Hannibal Lecter would have loved these accommodations!
Nearly everyone in “Ratched” is a liar, a murderer, a mental patient, a victim of horrible abuse — or some mixture thereof. The lavish production values straight out of a Douglas Sirk Technicolor spectacle are so gorgeous they sometimes distract from the lurid proceedings, with Mildred getting tangled up in all sorts of bloody intrigue as we learn more about what happened in her own past to make her so … unusual. (She talks endlessly about her past.)
Mildred has a special connection to Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock, baring his teeth like the big bad wolf in a cartoon), who killed four priests in gruesome fashion. (And yes, we see the killings in excruciating detail. “Ratched” never misses an opportunity to revel in its violence, whether it’s Tolleson’s killing spree or a patient being tortured to “cure” her of lesbianism, or closeups of lobotomies, or an ice pick through the eye, or an electrocution gone horribly wrong — you get the disturbing, gratuitously violent picture.) She butts heads with the ridiculously shrill Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis, all tics and mannerisms), bonds with the governor’s press secretary (Cynthia Nixon) and has a couple of strange dalliances with a mysterious private eye (Corey Stoll). We also get Vincent D’Onofrio hamming it up as the gluttonous and corrupt governor, Sharon Stone as a wealthy heiress who literally has a monkey on her shoulder, and Jon Jon Briones as the supposedly pioneering but criminally unethical head of the mental hospital, Dr. Richard Hanover, who displays a bedside manner that would give Dr. Victor Frankenstein the willies.
All the characters in “Ratched” are so over the top we half expect them to start singing opera. Yes, the production design is breathtaking and the campy dialogue provides a few dark laughs, and the actors are clearly having a good time taking juicy bites out of the material, but the histrionics become tedious and there are far more gross-out moments than genuinely frightening developments. The end result is one big bloody bore.