There’s nothing quite as perplexing or frustrating as an unnecessary prequel. The interesting part usually begins when the filmmaker originally told it, thus prequels have to bend over backwards to make the preceding events worth watching. From the Star Wars prequels (1999-2005) to Prometheus (2012), prequels don’t have a great track record. There are some exceptions of course, as things like X-Men: First Class (2011) and the Planet of the Apes prequel trilogy (2011-2017) managed to breathe new life into their respective series. There’s even excellent examples like The Godfather Part II (1974), which acts as both a sequel and a prequel, but for every success there are three times as many failures. This isn’t isolated to film, as TV has given us many examples. With that in mind, we come to Ratched (2020), based off the antagonist from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975).
Set in Northern California circa 1947, Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) is beginning her career as a psychiatric nurse. She is driven, manipulative, ambitious, vindictive and cunning, using her wits to gain power at Lucia State Hospital. The goings on at the hospital are confronting and bizarre. This includes the psychotic murderer and patient Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), whom Ratched has an important connection to. The Hospital Director Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), is also wrapped up in many mysteries as he tries to ensure the hospital is at the forefront of cutting edge yet controversial treatment methods. Meanwhile, a wealthy heiress Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) has hired hitman Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll) to take care of a few loose ends.
Right off the bat, it has to be noted that Ratched is a completely different animal to its predecessor. One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest was a subtle human drama, whereas Ratched is an over the top melodrama. It’s not surprising, considering the show has been developed by Ryan Murphy of American Horror Story (2011-2021) and Hollywood (2020) fame. His signature style is all over it, but has been dialled to 11. This isn’t a recognisably realistic recreation of the 1940s, but rather an extremely heightened reality with the most operatic sets, the most ostentatious costumes and the most extravagant props. While it’s an extremely committed aesthetic which can work wonders in many cases, this show’s level of theatricality repels the viewer more often than it attracts. There is very little subtlety in the presentation, but it’s quite clear Murphy isn’t going for subtlety.
It’s not just the costumes and production design that swing for the fences, as the cinematography is just as conspicuous. This is clearly supposed to invoke the vibrancy of classic cinema in a modern filmmaking context, but the effect is the opposite. There is a frustrating lack of charm to nearly every image, as it all just wants to grab the viewers attention and never seems to have storytelling purpose. This even extends to the colour grading, which hasn’t got a distinct theme beyond notching up the saturation to uncomfortably high levels. There are moments where the cinematography and colour admirably try to create thematic meaning, but the depth of those moments are too shallow to make the required impact. The intention is to create an energetic universe, but the result is an abnormal cartoon.
It’s not impossible for questionable visual choices to be ignored if the narrative manages to engage. Sadly, Ratched doesn’t make the best out of its various story threads. To be clear, there’s nothing inherently wrong with melodrama, as it’s a perfectly acceptable form of entertainment. The issue isn’t with the how broad the story turns are, but rather with how clichéd they are. Every major beat and all the connective tissue is a staple of television drama, yet none of it is arrange in a way that’s satisfying or makes storytelling sense. It’s like the show is trying to tick boxes of how to create an memorable series, without actually figuring out what the story needs. There’s the expected inclusions of violence, depravity, sex and psychological madness, but it’s mostly used just for the sake of shock value. The unoriginality of it all even diminishes the supposed ‘shock’, as it’s very easy to predict how each moment leads to the next.
Ratched is inspired by one of the most famous novels of all time, which in turn was made into one of the greatest films of all time. Consequently, it’s no surprise that Ratched ultimately wants to unpack layered themes and discuss important social issues. It’s unfair to expect the show to match the heights of its flawless source material, but that doesn’t mean it can’t reach acceptable levels of nuance. Bates Motel (2013-2017) and Hannibal (2013-2015) didn’t reach the heights of Psycho (1960) or Silence of the Lambs (1991), but they still created complex experiences in their own right. The thematic layers of Ratched don’t rise to the occasion, as the various ideas are only skin deep. It doesn’t help that the ideas aren’t properly representative of the time period’s social attitudes, making the analysis thematically confused. Most frustratingly, the score tries to add meaning where there isn’t, by co-opting famous music from unrelated films.
Sadly, the most important aspect of Ratched can’t do much to save it, despite the noble intentions. Sarah Paulson is a talented actor who always gives a compelling performance. That’s no different here, as she gives the only performance that actually complements the melodramatic tone in a beneficial manner. This is a very different interpretation from Louise Fletcher’s Nurse Ratched, but Paulson commits to it just as much. Despite this, Paulson’s amazing talents don’t fully manage to transcend the material given to her. It’s a shame, because she is incredibly strong in the role. Ultimately, this Nurse Ratched is far less interesting than the one in Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s fair to say that Ratched is at a disadvantage because it’s missing certain requirements from Cuckoo’s Nest, but the show compensates by adding different elements. Frustratingly, these new elements make the character just another TV anti-hero.
At this point, it’s inevitable that every recognisable classic will be reimagined, whether that be in film or TV. If masterpiece’s like Psycho, Silence of the Lambs and One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest weren’t safe from the craze, we just have to assume that someone in Hollywood is working on a TV treatment of The Godfather called ‘The Corleone’s’. As mentioned, it’s not impossible to make satisfying content out of reboots or prequels, but one must first stop and think if it’s necessary or even worth it.
Best way to watch it: Just don’t. Watch One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest (1975) instead.