'Ratched' Gives A First Name — And A Backstory — To The Iconic 'Cuckoo's Nest' Nurse

Sep 16, 2020
Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

DAVE DAVIES, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. On Friday, Netflix unveils the latest series from Ryan Murphy, whose credits include "Glee," "Pose" and "American Horror Story." This new drama series, called "Ratched," is a prequel of sorts to the Oscar-winning movie "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest." It stars Sarah Paulson as a younger version of the character played by Louise Fletcher, Nurse Ratched. Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: It's been 45 years now since the movie adaptation of Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest" hit the screen, and hit it so hard that it wound up winning Oscars for Best Movie, Best Director, Best Actor and Best Actress. The director was Milos Forman. The actor playing anti-establishment rebel R.P. McMurphy was Jack Nicholson. And the actress playing the ultimate authority figure, Nurse Ratched, was Louise Fletcher. Now, almost half a century later, Nurse Ratched has been given a first name - spoiler alert, it's Mildred - and a backstory.

What happened to Nurse Ratched in her earlier days to make her so tightly coiled, so unyieldingly authoritarian, so seemingly devoid of empathy and feeling? That's the mystery that "Ratched," the new Netflix mini-series from "Glee" and "Pose" co-creator Ryan Murphy, sets out to solve. And Ryan has given the title role to one of the breakout star players from his "American Horror Story" anthology series, Sarah Paulson.

Over the past nine years, Sarah Paulson has played a dozen different roles on "American Horror Story." In one season, titled "Freak Show," she played two at once as conjoined twins. In other series co-created by Ryan Murphy, she's played Geraldine Page in "Feud: Bette and Joan" and, most impressively, O.J. Simpson prosecutor Marcia Clark in "American Crime Story." And when not playing in Murphy's sandbox, she's appeared in the movie "12 Years A Slave" and in such powerful TV dramas as the recent "Mrs. America" miniseries and the classic Western series "Deadwood." So in my mind, she's a great pick for Nurse Ratched. She's got the range, the skill and what may be most important - the steely demeanor and confidence to play this iconic character.

She's also got to be good enough to hold her own against some very strong and scenes-stealing performers. And this miniseries is full of them, from Sharon Stone and Cynthia Nixon to Amanda Plummer and Vincent D'Onofrio. Most of these actors play their roles over the top, as though they were appearing in a "Sweeney Todd" type of very dark gothic comedy drama. But that matches the approach of co-creators Ryan Murphy and Evan Romansky. The music, the set direction, the photography - everything here is saturated rather than subdued.

The inspiration for "Ratched" may be an ultimately tragic tale, but there was a lot of humor in "Cuckoo's Nest," both the movie and Keysey's original book, as well. And this new Netflix miniseries doubles down on that. One of the best supporting players in "Ratched" is Judy Davis who, when we meet her, is sort of a prototypical Nurse Ratched. She plays head nurse Betsy Bucket, who presides over the asylum where Mildred Ratched is applying for a job. Mildred has ulterior motives for wanting to work there, so she's forged a letter from the doctor who runs the place to offer her a job interview. The officious Nurse Bucket is understandably suspicious, but young Nurse Ratched, even without any position of authority, quickly grabs the upper hand. The actresses and the music set the tone for the playful power struggles to come.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "RATCHED")

JUDY DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) Where did you get this?

SARAH PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) You must be the head nurse. Mildred Ratched.

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) I didn't ask what your name was. Where did you get the letter?

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) Why, it was sent to me.

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) That's where I'm confused because there is no one in his office except for Dr. Hanover and myself. I didn't send that, and I can assure you that isn't Dr. Hanover's signature.

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) I have come quite a long way and would just like to speak with him.

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) Dr. Hanover is out of the office till later this afternoon. If you'd like to leave a number, where you...

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) If you don't mind, I'd prefer to wait here.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) He'll be gone some time.

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) You just said he'd return in the afternoon.

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) It could be longer.

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) Well, then it could be shorter...

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) ...By your own logic.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PAULSON: (As Mildred Ratched) I truly don't mind waiting. I have nowhere else to be.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DAVIS: (As Betsy Bucket) Very well.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: Things don't always go that smoothly for Mildred. In this series, she's victim as much as predator, though she persists and obviously ultimately prevails.

As the narrative unfolds, there are outbursts of violence in this "Ratched" miniseries. Some are too aggressive and gratuitously brutal while others are just shocking enough to deliver the surprise impact they're supposed to. Not every character in this drama survives. But while they're around, they make quite an impression - D'Onofrio, Davis and Plummer especially.

But holding it all together here is Paulson, skillfully managing a very complicated and dominant character arc. The tone of "Ratched" is closest to the larger-than-life theatrics of "Feud: Bette and Joan." But instead of Bette Davis versus Joan Crawford, this new miniseries is more like Nurse Ratched versus everybody.

DAVIES: David Bianculli is editor of the website TV Worth Watching and professor of TV studies at Rowan University. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF RAY CHARLES SONG, DOODLIN'") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.