A look at the TV Series ‘Ratched’ created by Evan Romansky and Ryan Murphy and starring Sarah Paulson.
Growing up in 1980’s England, every house simply had a single metal dustbin that was emptied once a week. This was always sufficient, it was simple, it worked.
It was a long time ago.
For the last twenty-five years (or thereabouts), the world has been a little more conscious of the need to recycle materials. To prevent huge mountains of waste building up, or at least, prevent them from being even larger than they already are.
Recycling began with silly things like newspapers, drinks cans and milk bottles, but quickly grew to include all manner of goods. Now we’re recycling just about anything we can find and it seems as if the media machines responsible for cinema and television are been swept up in this.
Again, a long time ago, there were dozens upon dozens of original ideas being developed and released every year and we lapped them up happily like the compliant little mediaphiles we are. Every so often a remake would come along and we’d watch it because it had been thirty-or-so years since the original and we fancied seeing how the 80’s or 90’s would handle it differently. Half the time it was even okay.
But for a short-while now, ideas, intellectual-property, franchises and even characters are being recycled through the processing plant so they spring out as something new. More often than not, there is no artistic intention, no cinematic ideals or visions to convey, but rather they’re product of a studio looking to cash in on past successes.
A terrific example of this was that God-awful new Star Trek series, ‘Picard’. In fact, ‘Star Trek’ in general hasn’t been ‘Star Trek’ for some considerable time now. It keeps getting mulched down, stirred about a bit and then reconstituted into something slightly different. It’s like a photocopy of a photocopy; each attempt gets fainter and less like the original until it’s just a grotty, incoherent mess.
For me, ‘Star Trek’ as a TV series ended after ‘Voyager’ and the films ended after ‘Insurrection’. Everything since has either been dumbed down, buggered up and/or watered down to the point of being unrecognisable. I used to be proud to be a trekkie… Now I’m embarrassed to even mention it.
But it was inevitable that it would go this way. It’s a franchise that’s ripe for exploitation and reinvention and that’s precisely what it continues to do. On the flip-side, there are some original works that are simply too remarkable in their own right, that they’ll never see a remake, spin-off or any other of these insulting modern norms.
Take ‘The Shining’ and ‘One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest’. Older films now, but both truly astonishing pieces of cinema that stand alone and will do forever.
Oh, hold on, I’m being interrupted by myself… One moment please reader.
Ah, okay, so I’ve just informed myself that everything I’ve just said is utter bollocks. ‘The Shining’ has just recently been followed up with ‘Dr Sleep’ and ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ – and this is the eventual point of this essay – has now been followed up with this new TV series, ‘Ratched’.
In the case of ‘Shining’ and ‘Sleep’, I’ll let it off a tad, since they’re both based on books from the same author and one is a genuine sequel to the other, but in the instance of ‘Ratched’, the only thing connecting it to the original work is the name of the titular character.
If you haven’t seen ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, I implore you to check it out. It is a cinematic gem, a genuine marvel. A film that is near perfect in just about every way. And with iconic performances from Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher, the whole thing just zings with energy and chemistry, and burns with an intensity rarely felt in fiction.
Everyone always bangs on about how great Nicholson is when he’s not trying to be normal, so the fact he excels as the maniac committed to a mental-ward is hardly a surprise here. There’s some other young faces in the crowd like Danny DeVito, Christopher Lloyd and even quirky character actor Brad Dourif, but the stand-out among them – in my opinion – was Louise Fletcher as Nurse Mildred Ratched.
She had a way about her that made you want to hate the character but without ever really giving you the chance to find a valid reason for doing so. She was cold, menacing and fierce, but she covered it with her commitment to order, discipline and duty.
She had a voice that was soft and look that was inviting, but then in an instant – and with almost no change – could be hard and intimidating. She had a way about her that commanded your attention, pulling us, the viewers, into that ward with those patients and making us feel as uneasy as if were actually there.
She gave us a powerhouse performance in a powerhouse film. I’d have been very happy if it had stayed there.
But, alas, it didn’t. Here we are in the year 2020 – what’s already going down in history as a spectacularly poor year for the world – a mighty forty-five years after ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’ hit the theatres, and we have a TV series charting the rise of Mildred Ratched and why she became who she became.
When I heard about this series, I was intrigued. “What an amazing character to explore,” I thought, “Who’s going to take on the challenge of following up Fletcher’s benchmark?”
And then I found out… Sarah Paulson.
That made me sad. Sarah Paulson first came on to my radar with the excellent second-series of ‘American Horror Story’ which was dark, grotesque and fascinating. Paulson’s role wasn’t great, but she pulled it together and made it work.
She became a mainstay of the ‘AHS’ crowd from that point on. And in each new series of ‘AHS’, the show got weaker and shittier, and Paulson just seemed to play Sarah Paulson each time. After a while, you forget she’s trying to be a different character and you end up with weird memories of her that don’t quite seem to tally because she’s always so indistinguishable. And it gets very desperate when she has to get emotional in a scene; it’s eye-rollingly awful and you find yourself wishing for a power cut or a brain haemorrhage to make it all come to a sudden end.
But, I put those thoughts to one side and continued to wait for ‘Ratched’ to debut, because the character was solid, wouldn’t get snivelly or overly worked-up, and maybe Paulson was shackled by the terrible quality of the material she was being given for ‘AHS’ and I’d finally get to see her shine.
I stoked up Netflix – for it is they who stumped up the cash to make this thing – and settled in. The series opener is a sequence depicting a terrible, violent crime taking place, setting up – who I presume – to be the centrepiece villain/patient for the series.
Visually, the show is excellent. It has a vibrant, cinematic feel to it. Sparkling with polish and finished in high-gloss, it does not feel at all cheap, rushed or slapped-together. It seems to hark back to the styles of the greats; there’s a bit of Kubrick, a little Scorsese, even a dash of Hitchcock. And the soundtrack… Boy-oh-boy, they’ve lifted the score directly out of ‘Cape Fear’ and packed it all into the first five minutes.
You could put the score to ‘Cape Fear’ into an episode of ‘Coronation Street’ and you’d still come out with something you’d watch a second time. So it stands to reason that ‘Ratched’ starts off on solid footing.
But that’s where it begins and ends. Paulson is simply just another Paulson. Mercifully less emotional, but ultimately un-unique in every sense. The series feels less like an exploration of a great character from ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, but more like a weird sideways step from one incarnation of ‘AHS’ to another.
And that’s when I noticed that Ryan Murphy was involved. Suddenly it all made sense. The “not terrible but far from strong” scripting, the odd-ball decisions for the series, the endless homages to the cinematic greats… Can this guy not do anything original?
Series one of ‘AHS’ was a blisteringly visceral show. It pulsated with atmosphere and suspense. Jessica Lange was astounding, the atmosphere was palpable… It was good television. But then after a while you realise that all Murphy knows how to do is copy all the tricks and trademarks from the true-greats and use them to add sprinkles to his turd.
When you take away all his homages and references, you’re actually left with something rather dull. And I’m sorry to report that ‘Ratched’ is yet another superb example of this. I watch it, fascinated with the style and presentation, being reminded that films used to look like this, but then the episode tries to do story and you’re reminded what you’re actually looking at.
Rather jarringly, the show is set in 1947, fifteen years prior to the events portrayed in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’, yet we’re given a character who is certainly not fifteen years younger than she was in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’. So, unless one of the subsequent series’ of this show deals with a ‘Green Mile’esque supernatural being who can make people live forever, then I call bullshit!
Paulson tried hard, but she never manages the depth that Louise Fletcher did. There’s far too much telling instead of showing going on. We’re not cracking the character open to reveal an incredible past and troubled soul, we’re distorting a character to fulfil some weird need to capitalise on something that ought to have been left alone.
If this had simply been a show about a manipulative woman, forcing her way into a hospital and then playing people off each other, it might have been a tad unremarkable, but it would have been a lot easier to swallow. Just like ‘Star Trek: Picard’ could have been made as any show other than ‘Trek’, so this could have been anything it wanted without the ‘Cuckoo’ connection.
It’s not a total loss, but nor is it what you want it to be. It’s like being served a tough, stringy bit of steak in a restaurant; you’ll suffer it very briefly just this once, but you’ll still lament what should have been.
One thing this show has done that I’m grateful for, is reminded me about how great an actor Fletcher is. I’m highly tempted to dig out all my ‘Star Trek: Deep Space Nine’ DVD’s to see her portray the Bajoran religious nut, Winn, who – a little like Mildred Ratched – was a power hungry monster disguised in a peaceful exterior.
There was something genuinely sinister about Fletcher’s Winn and Nurse Ratched, and it was electrifying, like being hit by a bolt of lightening; you knew you were dealing with something powerful and special. Sadly, once it’s been recycled and spat back out in its new form, you’d be lucky to feel anything more than the sensation of a supressed fart from someone sharing a bench seat with you.
Recycle your plastic, and your cardboard and even your old household appliances. But for goodness sake, don’t recycle TV shows, films and their characters. Do something new, be original, stand on your own two feet.
Either make a good show than stand up on its own merit, or don’t make it at all.
A reason why you should watch it: Nice homages to the cinematic giants and possibly to spark some interest in ‘Cuckoo’s Nest’.
A reason why you shouldn’t watch it: The show has all the depth of a lid to a margarine tub.