“I wish that I could have met Mildred Ratched before the world got to her.”
These are the words of Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), paramour of the title character (Sarah Paulson) of Netflix’s “Ratched.” They are also a heck of a thing for somebody to say six episodes into an eight-episode season. After all, showing us what warped a young psychiatric nurse into the tyrannical antagonist of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” is exactly what this series, arriving Friday, was supposed to have been doing.
“Ratched” tries, for a while, and it looks awfully good doing it. But it gets waylaid in spectacle and lurid melodrama. What starts as a psychological portrait becomes a Jackson Pollock spatter pattern of bloodletting and revenge tragedy. One plot flies east, another flies west; chaos and clutter claim much of the rest.
The premise is straightforward. As Mildred says of one of her early patients — a multiple murderer, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), in whom she takes an interest — “He wasn’t born a monster. Somebody turned him into one.”
This drama promises to show who or what Frankensteined her into the asylum authoritarian of Ken Kesey’s novel and Milos Forman’s film. In many ways, though, Paulson’s Mildred Ratched starts off as already a version of the character made famous by Louise Fletcher: quieter and more guarded, but manipulative and starchily terrifying.
In 1947, she arrives at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California for a job interview she was not invited to. After coercing the ambitious, overstressed Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) into hiring her, she sets out to supplant the stern head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis) — Nurse Ratched’s Nurse Ratched — and intercedes for Edmund, who’s marked for a death sentence. But her motives prove deceptive, and her methods ruthless.
“Ratched” starts off with promise, a sort of “Better Call Saul” meets “Bates Motel” by way of “American Horror Story.” It’s a delight watching Paulson and Davis sharpen the blades of their controlling characters against each other. And the costuming and set design are a feast, the lush midcentury appointments — Dr. Hanover’s office alone could be in a museum of design — belying the barbarism of the hospital’s “enlightened” treatments, which include torturous hydrotherapy and lobotomies (depicted in gory detail and crunchy audio).
“Ratched” was created by Evan Romansky and is produced by Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, as part of Murphy’s expanding Netflix empire. Its premise fits much of Murphy’s recent work. Like “Feud: Bette and Joan,” it’s a reclamation of a woman (in this case fictional) defined by sexist tropes about gender and power. (The Ratched of “Cuckoo” is a rebellious boy’s caricature of female authority.) Like “Hollywood,” it reimagines a swellegant 1940s California through the lens of a more inclusive era.
It has most in common, though, with Murphy’s anthology “Horror Story.” Superficially, it recalls that series’s best season, “Asylum,” which also starred Paulson and wrung macabre terror from mid-20th-century psychiatric treatments. But as a story, it’s more like that show’s weaker seasons, in which the multiplying shock twists drown out the themes.
“Ratched” is a drama inspired by 1940s and 1950s films that eventually decides it wants to be every 1940s and 1950s film. Look once, it’s a steamy thrill-kill noir; twice, it’s a Hitchcockian nail-biter; three times, it’s a Douglas Sirk melodrama of forbidden love. Then this whole Dagwood sandwich of cinematic styles gets smoothified in the blender of hyperactive 21st-century streaming drama.
This is the sort of series of which people say, “The actors are having a lot of fun,” which is a nice way of saying they’re enjoying themselves more than you are. Corey Stoll smolders as a mystery man nosing around the hospital. Vincent D’Onofrio gobbles scenery as a Coen brothers-like boor of a governor. Amanda Plummer jitterbugs through her performance as a scatterbrained ex-flapper. Sharon Stone swans onscreen as an eccentric heiress with a vengeance in her heart and an elegantly clothed monkey perched on her shoulder.
It is, I should add, an excellent monkey. I have no notes on the monkey! But the monkey-ness of “Ratched” — its urge to go for the garish and operatic — overwhelms its character-study ambitions.
This extends to its portrayal of mental illness. “Ratched” talks a good game about humane treatment but mostly depicts the hospital’s patients as violent and terrifying. (This does, at least, provide some meaty set pieces for Sophie Okonedo as a woman whose multiple personalities include the Olympian Jesse Owens.)
And in the end, the show’s theory of Mildred is a pretty rote story of childhood abuse and repression, clunkily related. In one head-scratching section, we get the ugly story of her upbringing told through a marionette show; then she repeats the story to Gwendolyn as a monologue in the next scene.
Showing is better than telling, let alone telling twice. But the sequence also raises the question of why we’re watching an origin story that has its own origin story. Ostensibly “Ratched” is the story of how Mildred became so hardened — how the world got to her, in Gwendolyn’s words — but by the time we meet her, the concrete is already 75 percent set.
If a stylish thrill ride is what you want, “Ratched” may do the job. It’s a wild drive through the dark in a pristinely restored roadster, even if the driver often seems to forget the destination.
But if you’re actually looking for what “Ratched” promises, a nuanced explanation of a woman who’s been caricatured as a demon, you may find yourself wishing that you could have met Mildred Ratched before “Ratched” got to her.