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Series Review: Sarah Paulson Carries a Lukewarm Season 1 of “Ratched”

Written by: Patrick Howard | September 17th, 2020

Series poster: “Ratched”

Ratched (Ryan Murphy/Evan Romansky, 2020) 2 out of 4 stars.

The mere notion of exploring the backstory of a cinematic villain as iconic as Nurse Ratched is a notion that should not be taken lightly. Many artists have tried to flesh out some of our greatest baddies in the past, to mixed results. George Lucas, the creator of the Star Wars franchise, attempted to explain who Darth Vader was before he turned to the Dark Side with his prequel trilogy during the late 1990s and early 2000s. Star Wars fans are still debating if Lucas’s execution paid off in the end.

Evan Romansky, a newcomer to the showrunning game, collaborates with Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story) to reveal the story of how Ratched became the cold and ironclad nurse that we would eventually see in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. Murphy calls upon frequent collaborator Sarah Paulson to fill the shoes of Ratched. We follow the titular character as she schemes and manipulates her way into becoming the new night nurse of Lucia State Hospital. Lucia is on the verge of being the most innovative and forward-thinking psychiatric hospital in the country. It is led by Dr. Hanover, played by Jon Jon Briones, who has plans to put himself at the forefront of his field, and Lucia is the perfect playground. As the season progresses, and as Ratched gains more control over the Lucia and its staff, we see the sick and twisted ulterior motives of the characters seeking power and domination.

l-r: Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched and Alice Englert as Nurse Dolly in RATCHED. Credit Saeed Adyani ©Netflix

Ratched never fails to pass up an opportunity to have fun with the weird and surreal visuals and ideas you’d imagine, once a psychiatric ward comes into the picture. Sometimes the show experiments with explicit color changes in the lighting of a scene. This one choice is a fair way to describe the first season of Ratched: the artistic merit and the production value of 1940s Northern California is crisp and clean, but it doesn’t lead to characterization and themes that challenge your viewing experience. 

Paulson and the supporting cast do what they can with the campy material that is no more than skin deep. We see the troubled and painful backstory of Mildred Ratched, but we never see past her recognizable costuming and hairstyle once we are with her in the present storyline. Paulson commands absolute control of every frame, however. When the storylines about malpractice and drug abuse stop grabbing your attention, Paulson’s unmatched intensity will most assuredly keep you invested in Ratched once the storytelling has given up completely. 

Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells in RATCHED. Credit Saeed Adyani ©Netflix

Patrick Howard has been a cinephile since age seven. Alongside 10 years of experience in film analysis and criticism, he is a staunch supporter of all art forms and believes their influence and legacy over human culture is vital. Mr. Howard takes the time to write his own narrative stories when he can.

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