Ryan Murphy's 'Ratched' Offers Netflix Viewers the Shock Treatment and Little Else

From the mind of Ryan Murphy comes a pulpy, lurid TV series partly set in an asylum. No, not that one. This is a fresh story—assuming, of course, that you could ever consider a prequel centered on one of the most iconic movie antagonists of all time a "fresh story."

Murphy's latest project for Netflix (following The Politician and Hollywood) is Ratched, an eight-episode origin story about Mildred Ratched, the manipulative and protocol-loving nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest. Sarah Paulson, a Murphy-verse staple, plays the titular role and dons not just a nurse's uniform, but also the same sort of tight facial expression that actress Louise Fletcher wore in her Oscar-winning portrayal of the character, in 1975's Best Picture-winning Cuckoo's Nest. (The film itself is an adaptation of author Ken Kesey's 1962 countercultural novel of the same name.) Paulson's usually a delight to watch, and oftentimes is on Ratched; the show that's built around her performance, though, isn't nearly disciplined enough to suit its namesake.

Ratched Netflix Sarah Paulson
In Netflix's new "Ratched," Sarah Paulson stars as the titular nurse in 1947, long before the events of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." Netflix/Courtesy of Netflix

Created by writer Evan Romansky and developed by Murphy and collaborator Ian Brennan, the series is set in 1947, when Paulson's Ratched ingratiates herself to the doctor heading up a psychiatric hospital in gorgeous Northern California. The doc—named Richard Hanover and played sympathetically by Jon Jon Briones—is hoping to revolutionize mental healthcare by turning the world onto the wonders of the transorbital lobotomy. Ratched, naturally, is intrigued by this forward-thinking (no pun intended) procedure.

But the show doesn't open on the hospital, or a lobotomy being performed, or even on Ratched herself. Instead, we're welcomed with an ultraviolent killing spree that takes place in a clergy house: One priest gets his throat slashed so badly he's nearly decapitated, another has his face smashed in on a toilet seat. There's more brutality and other victims, but we'll spare you some of the hideous details, something the show mostly refuses to do for its viewers. Ratched fetishizes its extreme violence and gore, and leaves almost nothing to the imagination—it prefers to flaunt the severed limbs, and amplify the sounds an ice pick makes when it enters the human skull. (Yes, we know: A Ryan Murphy show lacking subtlety and restraint—unfathomable.)

There's a sadistic bent to the series, one that we, frankly, found tough to stomach. Of the eight episodes sent to the press, we could only make it through three and change; a particularly tortuous scenario late in the fourth installment was enough to make us tap out. Funnily enough, when the camera isn't savoring tissue damage and pools of blood, the show is extremely easy on the eyes. The cast is impressive and familiar: Cynthia Nixon, Finn Wittrock, Corey Stoll, Judy Davis, Vincent D'Onofrio and Sharon Stone fill out the roster. Everyone's costumed well, in rich and sumptuous colors, and glowingly photographed. Maybe we're easy marks, but we also never tired of seeing characters march through Art Deco hallways or drive down winding, cliffside roads.

The music's similarly extravagant, because they cribbed from the best. Sections of Bernard Herrmann's scores for Psycho and Cape Fear surface from time to time, and while they're certainly bold lifts, those strings still quicken the pulse.

It's telling that Murphy and Co. picked those pieces for the soundtrack. Ratched really has more in common with those aforementioned thrillers than with Miloš Forman's Cuckoo's Nest. That's not automatically a flaw—the show is its own work and it has no hope of eclipsing Forman's AFI-sanctioned film, so why not try a different tone and style of storytelling? The problem is that the series envisions Nurse Ratched as a glove-snapping psychopath, and makes her into a caricature of herself. By the end of the second episode, she's already committed a few horrible acts that directly echo plot points in Cuckoo's Nest. When Ratched starts, it almost feels as though the character's done evolving.

Despite that sense, Ratched actually has plenty of story to burn through—far too much, in fact. Paulson's lead is busy navigating a scheme we won't spoil, but the other members of the sprawling cast all have their own business to tend to. There are all manner of subplots: a revenge ploy, secret trysts, addiction, LGBTQ+ characters longing to live their lives in the open, orphan backstories, a potential murder trial, a political campaign angling to show it's serious about the death penalty. Peppered throughout, there are themes of repression, maybe being unable to escape who you really are, and those who don't conform to postwar ideas of "normal" being punished.

As for how it all knots together by season's end, we're not sure. Perhaps there's some measure of redemption for Nurse Ratched, to keep the audience on her side, or perhaps she sinks deeper into blood-splattered cartoon villainy. When a show's this unpleasant and messy, we don't really care to find out.