Review: Ratched – Season 1 (2020)

Ratched: Season 1. Created by Evan Romansky. Netflix, 2020.

Premiere Impressions

            Ryan Murphy has finally out-Ryan Murphy-ed himself. The first season of Ratched, now streaming on Netflix,features all of his recurring authorial elements—style over substance, melodramatic horror, gayness, and Sarah Paulson’s tears—without restraint. Throwing all of these elements together at the loudest possible volume culminates in one of the year’s campiest “so bad it’s good” series.

            The series focuses on the life of Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) as she manipulates her ascension to the top of a mental institution full of dark secrets in the postwar period. As quickly revealed to the audience, Ratched comes to rescue the hospital’s newest patient, her brother (Finn Wittrock), from execution. As she carries out her plans, Ratched must also confront her traumatic childhood and repressed lesbianism.   

            The most jarring thing about the series, even in a series that features a nonsensically graphic self-amputation, is the rewriting of the show’s lead character. If you are familiar with either the novel or film adaptation of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, you know that Mildred Ratched is so terrifying because of her authenticity. She tortures her patients, not because she truly enjoys it, but because she is supposed to. She is told to by the state, so she does. The Nurse Ratched of Netflix’s series is neither the Nurse Ratched of old, nor a consistent character. She spends most of the series playing mind games with other characters that are sometimes as basic as convincing characters that other characters have feelings for them. This Nurse Ratched is an underdeveloped Regina George in a horror soap opera. Sarah Paulson is fabulous, as she always is, but there is little actual character for her to bring to life. At one moment, she is gleefully watching lobotomies for her own sick curiosity, the next she is saving the lives of her patients. Clearly, the series wants to plant the seeds that she is a monster, but also a savior of repressed lesbians.

            The supporting cast is wonderful at what the show needs from them, which is mostly posing and delivering ridiculous dialogue. Sharon Stone spends the entire series campily posturing in various designer garments—sometimes with a monkey, because why not. Judy Davis is wonderfully manic as Ratched’s rival, whose allegiances and motivations shift for any reason at any moment. Cynthia Nixon, as Ratched’s love interest, Gwendolyn, is easily the best thing about the series, which is unsurprising because it’s Cynthia Nixon. She is the only actress who brings a bit of gravitas to the series and grounds it in some true emotion.

            The show actually works best when it focuses on the relationship between Ratched and Gwendolyn, which allows for an interesting, but flawed exploration of closeted lesbianism. There are great moments in the show that exemplify the anguish of living a constant lie. At a hospital dance—yes, there is a hospital dance—the distance Gwendolyn and Ratched must keep is affecting and upsetting. Problematically, just about every one of these moments that represents the real emotional labor of queer people of the time is counterbalanced by weird insinuations that Ratched’s sexual orientation is a product of her childhood trauma. The show’s thematic significance would definitely be more effective if there was just a little bit less plot being thrown at you all the time.

Post-Screening Snippets

  • The use of color in the mise-en-scène is absolutely fabulous, except for the overwrought moments where the entire frame changes color to indicate the characters’ “true” emotions
  • The oyster bar sequence, in particular, is sure to be a queer favorite
  • Hunter Parrish! #PlanoTX

The Final Tea

            If you are in need of some extreme fabulosity and have a strong stomach, Ratched is a treat. The narrative may be convoluted, the characters undercooked, but there is no denying that every shot of the series is picturesque. Fans of high-camp should stream, others need not press play.


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