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‘Ratched’ is a mighty strong dose of Ryan Murphy, with sometimes sluggish side-effects

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Left to right: Sarah Paulson and Alice Englert.
Image Credit: SAEED ADYANI/NETFLIX

Netflix’s ‘Ratched’ isn’t the Ryan-Murphiest thing Ryan Murphy has ever produced, but it sure wants to be.

From a bloody opening scene in which a deranged man (Finn Wittrock) kills a rectory full of Catholic priests and their monsignor (which, frankly, feels like target practice at this stage in Murphy’s career) to the depiction of unsettling experimental treatments at a psychiatric asylum, ‘Ratched’ (premiering Friday) can at times feel like the fullest expression of the television impresario’s high/low values, matched with a celebratory display of his prevailing art form: purposeful camp which flips the scripts on old references.

‘Ratched’ is garish and gorgeous all at the same time; horrific and occasionally poetic; glamorous to an almost laughable degree; thrilling for a while and then puzzlingly dull for stretches, only to become interesting all over again. The show is a fine and flawed example of who Murphy is and what he makes. You can’t help but be lured in by it.

Behind her steely-eyed menace, the story of Nurse Mildred Ratched (yes, the very one from Ken Kesey’s novel ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ and the classic film adaptation, played here with calm and collected determination by Sarah Paulson) is presented as a kind of feminist dawning. Nurse Ratched is someone trying to overcome her own damage and demons and, in her demented way, she wants to make the world kinder and more just, through the most painful and manipulative sort of caring.

It can take a while for the series to find its way — and often it’s the viewer who will feel as if they are missing something profound. As a prequel set in 1947, it’s not required that the viewer know much about “Cuckoo’s Nest” or even Louise Fletcher’s Oscar-winning performance as a more powerful Ratched in the 1975 movie version, other than the fact that Murphy (working here with Ian Brennan and creator Evan Romansky) is among our shrewdest and most knowing samplers of popular culture.

Of course a lot of us will come here wanting to know what made Ratched into the sublimely vindictive control freak of the mental ward. Audiences have been wondering that for decades. “That (expletive) nurse, man,” Jack Nicholson’s character said about Nurse Ratched. “She ain’t honest.”

The answers provided in ‘Ratched’ may or may not satisfy that curiosity, but fans of Murphy’s previous and provocative works won’t mind. ‘Ratched’ combines the lushly lurid old-school glamour of his FX series “Feud: Bette and Joan” (in which powerful women discover that mutual respect is a by-product of their bitter rivalry) with slightly less grisly aspects of ‘American Horror Story: Asylum’ (itself a comment on mental-health-care conditions before landmark revisions of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, featuring Catholic nuns with warped, Ratched-like control over their patients).

Six months after the priest slayings, Paulson’s Mildred, always dressed to the nines, arrives at a sprawling asylum on the Northern California seaside — Lucia State Hospital, where the alleged killer, Edmund Tolleson (Wittrock) is housed. Although the asylum’s director, Dr Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), tells her he has no job openings for nurses, Ratched schemes her way onto the staff, to the dismay of Nurse Betsy Bucket, played by Judy Davis.

This Nurse Bucket is pretty much your best reason to give ‘Ratched’ a whirl, with a splendidly sour performance and much needed drop of comic tension from Davis — a template example of institutional cruelty and caprice that will help create the Nurse Ratched of lore. Later in the series, Murphy’s diva worship shifts to Sharon Stone, who has a ball playing the deeply disgruntled and deep-pocketed mother of one of Dr. Hanover’s former patients.

The state’s unctuous governor (Vincent D’Onofrio) is eager to see Tolleson executed so he can boost his tough-on-crime profile during a re-election campaign. Nurse Ratched has come to this place because she has an abiding interest in Tolleson’s fate (I won’t reveal it here); the governor’s press secretary, Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) takes an immediate interest in Mildred.

The asylum setting is, of course, irresistible as a source of creepiness, as Dr. Hanover tries to improve on methods for lobotomising intractable patients and prescribes other torturous treatments designed to “cure” such questionable diagnoses as homosexuality and teen angst. This bad medicine has a way of feeling like redundant territory in a Murphy drama, given how often he and his collaborators routinely demonise an array of authority-figure archetypes — doctors, nurses, nuns, preachers, elected leaders, Hollywood studio bosses, etc. It’s playful, but it has a way of becoming a facile harangue against anyone in charge.

That’s why Nurse Ratched has such potential as a character study — how she gets off on simply taking charge. ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’ left her motivations vague, which had a way of making the viewer feel as helpless as the drugged patients. ‘Ratched’, too, seems to let its sense of purpose get similarly fogged in, as if the narrative has been slipped a calming sedative and is wearing restraints.

The show’s obsessive attention to style and mood begins to seem hallucinatory and sluggish. As with Murphy’s other projects on Netflix so far (‘The Politician’; ‘Hollywood’), and with more than one season of his ‘American Horror Story’ on FX, the dosage is strong, but the symptoms persist. As a viewer, you have no idea why you’re here or how you got here. Nurse Murphy wants it that way.

Don’t miss it

‘Ratched’ (eight episodes) is now available for streaming on Netflix.


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