Ryan Murphy's Ratched has been billed as the story of how Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest becomes the stiff, forceful authoritarian of a psychiatric hospital we see in the film, but that description doesn't exactly jibe with the eight episodes sent to critics. It might be more accurate to say that Ratched jumps feet-first into a depiction of a woman already unhinged, and the macabre, sometimes gruesome things she's willing to do to further her goal.
By now, you know what to expect in a Murphy-verse production, and the engrossing Ratched has those hallmarks in spades: lush visual treats, occasionally off-the-wall antics from some truly batshit characters, heightened drama, sex, and blood. Soaked in the seductive look and feel of film noir flicks, Ratched does less to explain how Ms. Ratched, played with cool detachment by Sarah Paulson, becomes the way she is than it drops us into her world where blackmail, secrets, and mind control serve as currency. But that's OK. After adjusting to the peculiarities of this dark fantasia in the beginning and then, traversing a few bumpy plot moments here and there, viewers will likely find that Ratched is one of the more tightly structured, easy-to-follow, and grounded works from the House of Murphy. That's relatively speaking of course: There's still psychosis, severed limbs, and incestuous marionettes, lest you thought this creative team (including longtime collaborators Ian Brennan, Tim Minear, and Alexis Martin Woodall) suddenly got boring.
Many mysteries frame the start of the series and then unfurl rather smartly as the scenes progress. Unlike the film from which the main character sprung, Ratched opens in 1947 with bloody murder, as Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) slaughters four priests and is then sent to an asylum. Running parallel to that event, Ms. Ratched cons her way into a job at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California, where one Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) rules with a less-than-iron grip and conducts cutting-edge experiments of questionable legitimacy. It's not clear at first why Ms. Ratched needs to be at this hospital so desperately or what Tolleson has to do with her, but those ties and others are woven together over time. At work, Nurse Ratched becomes more and more controlling and sinister, especially as external forces, including Gov. George Milburn (Vincent D'Onofrio), his press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), and glamourous heiress Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone), all come to influence and interrupt Nurse Ratched's best-laid plans.
Compared to say, American Horror Story or even the sometimes Murphy's madcap The Politician, the characters' motives and events driving Ratched feel (relatively) more believable, as her every action pushes the proverbial needle deeper into her and leads to increasingly darker deeds for everyone involved. Eventually, Ratched reveals the why behind her f---ed up personality and then the traumas that triggered it, but those seem almost secondary to the present-day action and lengths she'll go. in any event, nearly every minute stimulates the senses, whether it's the guts and gore, some truly breathtaking scenery, or the exquisite costumes — many rocked by Sharon Stone, ever-dripped in a worldly, Gloria Swanson-style fabulousness that's so good it's painful in its own way too.
Ratched works very well as a moody, sensual thriller even if it's not so much an intellectual exploration. That's not shade. A good deal of Murphy's most celebrated works probe a social or cultural issue he and his team of artistes believe we ought to ponder, whether it's the debt we owe Black and Latinx innovators on Pose, the shoulda-been heroes of the revisionist Hollywood, or the costs of entrenched misogyny on Feud. In One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, we see Nurse Ratched as the face of institutional oppression, and while this team might've once again shown their knack for timely social commentary by exploring that very relevant theme here, Ratched is alluring, juicy storytelling just the same. If there is a heady point being made, it might be the show's exploration of how homosexuality — lesbianism specifically — was once regarded as mental illness, and the havoc the repression of natural desires can impose on a person's (Ms. Ratched's) psyche. But that's not the main point, simply one more pain point for this deeply damaged woman.
Similarly, another strong but subtle theme running through is, to put it crudely, how institutional subjugation of women makes them "crazy," but that's again not a thesis — even if the series does a great job of giving women of a certain age roles to play that aren't limited to childcare and spousal support. Everybody delivers bang-on, unnerving performances, particularly Jon Jon Briones as the mad scientist, Judy Davis as the put-upon Nurse Bucket, Sophie Okonedo as a patient with paranoid schizophrenia, and of course Paulson as the titular Nurse Ratched. It's stylish, sumptuous, perhaps just a little scary, and a bloody good time.
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
Ratched premieres Friday, Sept. 18 on Netflix.
PHOTOS: First Look at Ratched on Netflix