Pop Culturing: In Ryan Murphy's 'Ratched,' Starring Sarah Paulson, an Origin Story of Campy Proportions

by Jason St. Amand

National News Editor

Thursday September 17, 2020

Sarah Paulson, left, and Finn Wittrock, right, in a scene from "Ratched."
Sarah Paulson, left, and Finn Wittrock, right, in a scene from "Ratched."  (Source:Saeed Adyani / Netflix)

How many times have audiences seen Bruce Wayne's parents murdered in a dimly lit alleyway? (Spoiler alert: It happened most recently in Todd Phillips' "Joker.") It's an origin story told countless times to varying degrees of success but one that Hollywood is obsessed with retelling.

Creators seem to love the origin story (and not just when it comes to superheroes) and we have no shortage of such tales, even on the small screen. Just a few months ago, HBO's rebooted "Perry Mason" showed how the iconic defense attorney (played here by Matthew Rhys) went from a private investigator to the bullish lawyer we know today. For "Ratched," which hits Netflix Friday, producer Ryan Murphy attempts to do the same but with another iconic character, Mildred Ratched, the demented nurse from Ken Kesey's 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." (Louise Fletcher played Nurse Ratched in the 1975 film for which she won an Oscar.)

"Perry Mason" was undoubtedly an expensive show to make; it was rich in detail and every frame looked like Rhys was transported back to the early 30s. But it was a dull story and maybe one we didn't particularly need. Despite Sarah Paulson's wonderful performance, the same goes for "Ratched," co-created by Evan Romansky, though its problems stem from the opposite of the issues that plagued "Perry Mason." Because the show is a Murphy production, the new series is heavy on over-the-top camp — a hallmark of his projects — while trying to infuse the story with 2020 wokeness (see his previous Netflix series "Hollywood").

Sharon Stone in a scene from "Ratched." Photo credit: Netflix

Set in 1947, "Ratched" takes place before the events of "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest." The show follows Mildred as she squeezes her way into getting a job at a leading psychiatric hospital in Northern California where its head doctor Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) is working on a number of gruesome experiments to test on willing patients — many of whom happen to be gay. While trying to get a job as a nurse she often bumps up against head nurse, Betsy Bucket (a wonderful Judy Davis, who knows exactly what kind of TV show she's in). It's soon revealed that Mildred has an ulterior motive for wanting to work at the facility, which has something to do with Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), a murderer sent to the hospital to for evaluation to see if he's fit to stand trial for his crimes. And throughout the show, we get flashbacks upon flashbacks that show us how Mildred became the twisted Nurse Ratched best-known from the award-winning film.

"Ratched" starts off strongly with Murphy behind the camera (he directs the first two episodes), setting up the show to be a Hitchcockian thriller (there's plenty of nods to the master of suspense sprinkled throughout the first two episodes). But as more characters are introduced and more plot is revealed, the show quickly reveals itself to be another Murphy misfire albeit not his worst.

Fans of Murphy — and Paulson — will likely think back to "American Horror Story: Asylum," the second season in the FX anthology franchise, which was also set in a creepy mental health facility during the 50s. It was also Paulson's first leading role in the series and that season was incredibly pulpy and camp, featuring aliens, Nazi doctors, and serial killers. For "Ratched," Murphy and Co. (which includes writer Ian Brennan, who is a frequent Murphy collaborator and penned several episodes here), strike a similar tone but also try to shoehorn 21st-century politics into the story. Most notably, "Ratched" is another period piece that prominently features queer people. ("Lovecraft Country," "Perry Mason," "Penny Dreadful: City of Angels," and Murphy's own "Hollywood" all have queer plotlines with varying levels of importance.) And again with "Ratched," queerness is displayed as suffering and suffocation because of the era in which the show is set.

Judy Davis in a scene from "Ratched." Photo credit: Netflix

Still, the show is visually stunning and often uses candy-color sets and costumes to perverse effect; you'll never see a more fabulous looking lobotomy. A shoutout goes to the supporting cast — including Davis — who prop up the show, like Sharon Stone, who plays Lenore Osgood, an extremely wealthy heiress with a vendetta who complicatedly gets involved with Mildred's plans. Cynthia Nixon also stars, playing Gwendolyn Briggs, the assistant to California Governor George Milburn (Vincent D'Onofrio) who begins to fall for Mildred.

"Ratched" is heavy on style and OMG moments, failing to serve a gripping origin story worthy of its main character. Despite its misgivings, it's still at least more entertaining than a stuffy prestigious drama.

Pop Culturing

This story is part of our special report titled Pop Culturing. Want to read more? Here's the full list.