A jaw-dropping amount of money must have been blown on Ratched, the new Netflix series exploring how Mildred Ratched became the sinister nurse of 1975 classic One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. For a start, they have a monkey. I don’t think monkeys come cheap. And Sharon Stone, whose character owns the monkey, won’t come cheap either. Then there are the sets – often vast, frequently splendid – and Ratched‘s lavish costumes, each of which must have cost as much as a small car.
Why do I say this? Because part of the beauty of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, which won Best Picture at the 1976 Oscars, is its grotty realism. It doesn’t pretend to be set in anything other than a drab, grey, personality-obliterating institution. Ratched, by contrast, makes the stylistic choice to plonk its psychiatric hospital in an idyllic part of California, and then fill it with mint-green uniforms and rooms like beautiful hotel foyers. The outside world actually looks worse than the hospital.
It is in this strangely Instagram-friendly institution that Ratched, played brilliantly by Sarah Paulson, tricks her way into a position as head nurse in an attempt to access her foster brother Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock). Having killed four priests, he is locked in a cell in Lucia State Hospital and is likely to be executed. Most of the series is about Ratched’s plan to free him, though really, because Tolleson doesn’t seem to care as much as Ratched, it is hard to care even as much as Tolleson.
But there is much else going on besides, including a blossoming romance between Ratched and Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon) and a plot to kill Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones), the head of the hospital. Set in 1947, it also gives you an idea of how mental illness was treated, which, ironically, was absolutely mad and involved drilling into someone’s brain if they dared to be a lesbian. Unfortunately, and again in contrast to the superlative One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the patients in this series aren’t given an opportunity to demonstrate their humanity but exist instead as disposable pantomime spectacles, one of them murdering two people at one point. The series as a whole is far-fetched but it’s at these points that the decision becomes a drawback not a charm.
After watching Ratched, I went back and watched the Cuckoo’s Nest. I was looking for some thread, some connection between the show and the movie. I found none. The central character bears absolutely no relation to the one we see in the film, and the decision to call it a prequel takes a lot of nerve. In the film, Ratched is miserably bound by the rules; in the show she is essentially the only character to whom rules mean nothing. There are plenty of affecting moments – Judy Davis’ Nurse Betty Bucket is particularly tragic – but the series cannot hold a candle to its supposed inspiration, whose joys are all the more obvious by comparison.
‘Ratched’ is streaming on Netflix now