Updated: Jan 6
Television is now a medium which rivals cinema in its ambition and creativity. With increased budgets alongside its unparalleled scope (a film must contain its story within a 2 or 3 hour window, a television series may tell a story over multiple episodes and seasons), the small screen can now be the spawning ground of some of the most innovative visual entertainment.[i] Ryan Murphy is one of the best exploiters of television’s new possibilities, making the most of Netflix’s rise to produce some of the finest content on the platform, from Glee to American Horror Story and American Crime Story. His latest offering is Ratched, billed as a prequel to One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest (Miloš Forman, 1975) and purporting to fill in the backstory of one of cinema’s most reviled villainesses, Nurse Ratched.
This comparison flatters Ratched, but doesn’t really do it any favours, not only because it is nowhere near as good as One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest but also because the Nurse Ratched characters in the two pieces bear little resemblance to one another, making Murphy’s namecheck seem like a cynical financial tie-in rather than a genuine attempt to creatively explore the character. With this set to one side, then, it is worth analysing Ratched as though it were its own beast – a stand-alone work of television that lives and dies entirely under the weight of its own merits and pitfalls. The most obvious of the series’s merits is its beauty. Every shot is a delight to look at, with the set designs and the costumes all splashed with colour and all evoking a late 1940s glamour that would make you want to jump into the screen if it weren’t for all the murderous maniacs that populate this sumptuous world. The people too, however insane, are also undeniably attractive, Murphy favourite Sarah Paulson (who plays Ratched) is joined by Basic Instinct’s Sharon Stone and Sex and the City’s Cynthia Nixon in a cast that seems handpicked to show off aging beauty. It is Jon Jon Briones who stands out the most, however, as Dr Hanover, a traumatised psychologist clinging to the edges of his sanity. The depth of character Briones can show in his facial expression alongside his well-groomed 1940s look means that, whenever he is on the screen, I am watching him.
Further creative talent is demonstrated throughout the series, whether it be coming direct from Murphy himself or as a consequence of the creative freedom he allows the directors of individual episodes. The dual imposition of the final shot is the last in a long line of thoughtful editing techniques, but perhaps the best example comes at the climax of one of the episodes, where swipe cuts, split-screens, and parallel editing work in unison to build tension and spring surprises, as multiple narrative-shaking events occur simultaneously. The soundtrack too, is excellent, drawn from Camille Saint-Saëns “Danse Macabre” (for the title music) and Bernard Hermann’s Cape Fear score (for the main background music), and expertly woven into the narrative, setting the tone (a mixture of dark, moody, elegant, alluring) effortlessly in a manner beyond which words or visuals could sufficiently match.[ii] This is all superb work, a pulling together of strong individual factors – mise-en-scène, performance, editing, score – into an interconnected whole that creates an atmosphere of fantasy and dread, as though Guillermo del Toro had ventured into television. If only Ratched continued along this promising path, it might have been an excellent addition to Murphy’s portfolio.
Instead, the tone begins to morph and shift from episode to episode and Ratched begins to lose its identity. It lurches from the fantastical psychological horror of its hard-earnt set-up into a more serious social and historical comment on the treatment of the mentally ill, into a Bonnie and Clyde-style crime caper, into a graphic-novel-style gore-fest of almost comedic intensity. In doing so, it completely throws off its atmosphere and acts as almost a rollercoaster of tonal shifts, a series that simply cannot decide what it wants to be and so tries to be everything at once. Worse still, the characterisation is equally uneven. Not only is Nurse Ratched unlike her counterpart in Forman’s film, she is seemingly a new character from episode to episode, and we can never be sure whether she is truly good or evil, sane or insane. The same can be said about most of the characters in Ratched: they all seem mad in one way or another, and perhaps this is its intention, but with such uneven characterisation it becomes very difficult for a viewer to establish a relationship with any of the characters and therefore care about their fate. Perhaps its greatest flaw is that, despite the bumpy ride, the twists and turns remain relatively predictable. It becomes obvious when a character will meet their end because at the start of the episode we learn more about them – their backstory and their humanity. It is a very dangerous game to only let us get to know characters immediately before they are killed off, and Ratched does not play it well.
Nevertheless, Murphy’s series remains an eminently watchable ride for its first seven episodes. Much as the tonal lurches scar the excellent atmospheric set-up, the final episode scars the first seven. It is almost completely pointless, most of the loose ends having been tied up in the penultimate hour, and serves only to offer the main characters further chance to act differently with new scenery before inevitably, shamelessly setting up a potential second series (which has now, of course, been given the green light by Netflix). The blatant commercialism at both the top and bottom of Ratched tarnishes what could have been a fairly enjoyable stand-alone series and make it a relative weak point in Murphy’s otherwise excellent career.
At time of writing, Ratched is available to watch on Netflix.
[i] Indeed, cinema and television seem convergent in many ways, the budgets of series such as Game of Thrones allowing them to be aesthetically cinematic, whilst the continuous narrative of the Marvel Cinematic Universe allows it to tell a story with the chronological scope of television. [ii] I would highly recommend listening to both pieces, Danse Macabre: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YyknBTm_YyM, and Hermann’s Cape Fear: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QH3RhbVP7cA. Doing so will give a great sense of the tone and atmosphere of Ratched.