It’s hard for television and movie producers to leave great works alone, even 45 years after they initially released. The temptation to make unnecessary prequels, sequels and spinoffs on anything with a recognizable name is particular hard hard to ignore in 2020, where such media still dominates the market.
Enter “Ratched”, whose first standard 8-episode season recently hit Netflix. The show is based on the character of Mildred Ratchet, originally played by Louise Fletcher in the 1975 classic “One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest,” who in the film is authoritative, controlling, but ultimately reasonable and rational, especially compared to Jack Nicholson’s R.P. McMurphy, a convicted, rebellious pedophile rapist with a heart of gold who is suspected of faking a mental disorder in order to avoid serving his sentence on a work farm, who cause mischief at every turn.
“Ratched”, which will have at least one more season, was produced by Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy of “American Horror Story” fame, and is the result of a bidding war between Amazon and Hulu to develop the project, and their finished product is just about as good as you can expect from the pair.
“Ratchet” serves as a sort of prequel to “Cuckoo’s Nest,” focusing on a younger Ratchet (Sarah Paulson), a nurse who served in WWII who gets a job at Lucia State Hospital in California by illegitimate means to be with her incarcerated brother and notorious mass murderer, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), who is being held there until Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) declares him fit to stand trial. It’s 1947, and Dr. Hanover is a leader in his field in the lobotomy and electroshock therapy, believing that he can cure what he believes to be defects of the mind through unconventional means.
The show has a colorful cast including Head Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis); Huck Finnegan (Charlie Carver), a disfigured orderly at the hospital; Governor George Wilburn (Vincent D’Onofrio), the state’s governor who uses the hospital as a means to cement his re-election; Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), Gov. Wilburn’s press secretary, who takes a liking to Nurse Ratchet; Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), a wealthy heiress out to get Dr. Hanover; and Charlotte Wells (Sophie Okonedo) a patient at the hospital with dissociative identity disorder.
I watched the show blind and liked it, though I admit, while flashy, it is quite clumsy. While the show has limited locations, it’s clear Romanksy and Murphy were not satisfied with telling a small, self-contained tale; they had to go big, telling an exciting tale about a barbaric doctor, a governor who bet his re-election on said doctor’s supposed advances in his field, one of the worst mass murders (in the show’s canon) California has ever seen; and a murderous, lying nurse who was never formally trained, and who suffered trauma of the worst kind as a foster child, and won’t let anyone get close to her because of it.
The cast is solid, too, and most of the character arcs are reasonably satisfying, even if some are so over the top that at times the show feels like a cartoon. Nurse Bucket ended up being my favorite character, and D’Onofrio is great as a completely irredeemable jerk who steps all over people. Paulson does a fine job with what she’s given, which at best is a warped caricature of the original character.
Then I re-watched “One Flew Over The Cukoo’s Nest”, in preparation for this review. And the show pretty much falls apart on all fronts when you compare it to its source material.
To start off, the showrunners have a profound lack of understanding of the character of Mildred Ratchet and why she was so effective in “Cuckoo’s Nest.” She’s a domineering figure, for sure, but only so much as she has to be to maintain order, or at least the resemblance of order. Throughout the film, she is very aware of McMurphy’s antics and what he is capable of — after his fishing trip stunt that should have been the end of him at the facility — but she’s a strong believer in second chances and rehabilitation, and while she often comes off as cold and inhospitable, she shows genuine care for her patients, and knows exactly what she’s doing, which adds an extra layer of tragedy when she essentially has to pull the plug on McMurphy via his lobotomy, who has proven that despite all the evil he has committed, he is a human being with some positive traits that deserves mercy.
The showrunners seemed to glean that she is only a brutal, domineering figure, who has no life outside her work and rigid goals. They seemed to be obsessed with this concept of twisted medical professionals as popularized as a horror trope, and they’ve very clumsily grafted that stereotype onto Ratchet, reducing her as a character with no legitimate medical education who breaks the rules and kills as she sees fit, which is a direct contrast to the Ratchet in “Cuckoo’s Nest” (in fact, Nurse Bucket is closer as a character to Ratchet in “Cukoo’s Nest”).
This show displays a thorough lack of understanding of “Cuckoo’s Nest” and what made that work so special. One of the strongest aspects of that film is the fact that it tells a charming yet tragic small story about a group of patients in the middle of nowhere and makes them extraordinarily human by the use of brilliant small moments. It’s not special because its head nurse was at the birth of the lobotomy, or because her brother was one of the most hated criminals in California. “Cuckoo’s Nest” is brilliant because of excellent character writing, and iconic performances about flawed, sick and sometimes despicable characters. It’s special because of what those characters did, not because of who they were, or what thrilling, national events they were a part of.
“Ratched” feels like what you’d get if a high schooler had to make a prequel to “Cuckoo’s Nest,” and only had Nurse Ratched’s Wikipedia page to go off of. It’s not bad as a disposable thriller in the same vein as “American Horror Story,” but it by no means works as a precursor to “Cuckoo’s Nest.” I really don’t know why the show uses the “Ratched” name at all, as it has nothing to do with “Cuckoo’s Nest” or the character of Mildred Ratchet as portrayed in that film at all. Romansky and Murphy would have been better off making this show based on a completely original character, especially because, while a legendary film “Cuckoo’s Nest” is not an IP that will make you rich through name recognition alone.
I’m at a loss to score this. As a standalone show, it’s a solid 6/10 average streaming series. But it’s one of, if not the worst, adaptation of an existing work or character I’ve ever seen. I’m tempted to say it feels like fanfiction, but most fanfictions at least have a thorough understanding of their source materials. It really feels like Romansky and Murphy either based this series off of cliffnotes on Nurse Ratched, or had an existing script and changed the main character’s name to Nurse Ratched in order to capitalize off of the over 50-year-old “Cuckoo’s Nest” IP.
It’s a shame, because “One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest” is a fantastic book and film. I recommend you check them out over this mess.