(RATCHED is now out on Netflix Nordic. Full season screened for review)

“Based on” is a very loose and vague concept. It’s a weasel word that allows for all kinds of freedom just as long as you acknowledge some connection to the original subject. For example: RATCHED, the new Netflix series by Ryan Murphy is based on ONE FLEW OVER THE CUCKOO’S NEST in the way that both are stories with characters in them. 

Where CUCKOO’S NEST has proven itself a timeless classic that sparks debate decades later thanks to its nuanced and thoughtful portrayal of punishment, systemic abuse, and the definitions of sanity, RATCHED is a grotesque caricature that profoundly misunderstands the material it’s adapting.

Normally it wouldn’t make sense to compare a spinoff (or prequel) like this to the original work. Especially when the two share practically no DNA with one another. But RATCHED couldn’t exist without the original film, not just because it uses the established characters, but because it lacks any personality of its own. It doffs its hat at numerous important pop-culture staples, CUCKOO only being one of them. The music references Bernard Herrman’s score to CAPE FEAR, while split screen storytelling is reminiscent of Hitchcock, or perhaps even closer to Brian DePalma, a devotee of the British maestro.

The show is so wildly erratic in tone and style that a clear target audience is impossible to pin down. Sometimes that’s a good thing, like with AMERICAN GODS, which changed from an off-beat road trip to a surrealist meditation on race in America. But RATCHED feels like half the writers room was in on a joke the other half didn’t catch, and the result is chaotic at best. 

It’s a gratuitously violent piece of entertainment, even as it in all sincerity calls for understanding. There’s a character plotting assassinations while they walk around with a monkey on their shoulder. A doctor performs lobotomies for fun in a sadistic attempt to find a cure for insanity. Corridors turn pure green or red in the style of Italian giallos. In the center of it all is the romance between two women who just want to make a connection. In the hands of someone like David Lynch this kind of absurdity would probably land a satirical tone it could stick with, but nothing of the sort is found here.

It’s not like the series needed to be this way. There are moments of genuine thoughtfulness and nuance, but they’re buried under lurid sensationalism that undermines the mature, even tender aspects entirely. The relationship between Ratched and Gwendolyn (Cynthia Nixon in a career best) is filled with unspoken passion and years of regret, and it’s one of the most pleasurable and humane parts of the entire series. But how we get there – and especially what is done with it – is a whole mess in and of itself. 

Most of the problems center around Ratched. The advertising for the show promises to “see the woman behind the monster,” which already says a lot about the creator’s intentions. In Milos Forman’s movie Ratched was certainly a difficult and even dangerous person with a clear malicious streak. But a simple monster wouldn’t be the center of so many essays and arguments this many years later. A product of a negligent system, Ratched was the culmination of Kesey’s years long research, which included actual stays at mental institutions. In his and Forman’s depiction she is what happens to anyone who is given too much power and not enough oversight – a common theme in the anti-establishment 1970s. 

But then again, look who she was up against. McMurphy (played into screen legend by Jack Nicholson) was a career criminal and rapist who pretended to be insane to escape his conviction in a real prison. The beauty of CUCKOO’S NEST is in Forman’s ability for us to feel empathy for someone truly despicable by crafting a film entirely from his viewpoint. It’s only afterwards we realize the telling is biased.

To depict her as a monster robs Ratched not just of agency, but humanity entirely. Before the series has even properly begun we’ve established a bias against her. And the series itself wastes no time in fully hopping aboard the nutbag express. In the second episode Ratched sees for the first time a lobotomy being performed, and the camera begins to slowly close in on her as the music crescendos. We’re supposed to recognize this – at least those of us who saw the original film – as something important. Like a signature by which we know her by. It is as distasteful as it is unnecessary. 

What’s worse is the series lacks conviction to stick to anything resembling a statement. For the first half of the season we witness Ratched performing cruel murders at the drop of a hat (including multiple lobotomies), only for a midway point to spend an entire hour explaining her past as an excuse for all this. 

In a misguided attempt to make audiences see Ratched as a victim rather than villain the series ham-handedly equates childhood trauma as a pathway to both homosexuality and violence. Granted, it never fully goes there because such a thing would require conviction, but instead RATCHED just lets the thought linger without pushing it further. If her childhood was hell, there was never a chance for her to become anything else but evil. A subplot involving a man from her past complicates things further by implying that all her deeds are for the sake of love which opens up a can of worms on its own. 

If only RATCHED wasn’t so thoroughly beautifully put together, it would be much easier to hate. If only this was a sloppy production with terrible acting and who cares directing instead of the sumptuous feast of dazzling set design and mesmerizing acting – both things that feel way too good for the writing. It’s like wrapping up a super saver pack of Walmart socks into the finest silk and calling it a day. 

As Ratched, Sarah Paulson gives it her all to inject the two dimensional Hannibal-wannabe as much soul as humanly possible. Every scene with her is a joy and she even makes some of the worst moments feel tolerable with her singular commitment to the part. Judy Davis, playing her frenemy head nurse, is also a treat in a snarky and withering role that has her chewing the scenery where she can get at it. The always reliable Jon Jon Briones brings superior sad sack energy to the mentally deranged Dr. Hanover, while an otherwise great Corey Stoll is wasted on a part that probably looked good on paper. 

The same goes for the guest stars, with the likes of Sharon Stone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Rosanna Arquette, Amanda Plummer, and Sophie Okonedo showing up to put on their best performances in ages. Their parts are underwritten catastrophes, especially for anyone playing a patient in the show. But like with the remains of a million dollar race car after a front end collision, you still can’t help but admire whatever craftsmanship survives the wreckage.

That’s really what RATCHED is in the end. A beautiful wreck. It’s a confused mess of ideas and inspirations that don’t work together in the least, but it’s put together with class and talent in every department except the writing. And the funny thing is that had it not tried to tie itself to a classic film, and then so heavily attempted to play up that connection, RATCHED might have been a passable schlock series in the style of AMERICAN HORROR STORY.

Like McMurphy, it tries to take the easy road by pretending to be something else. If only the people behind RATCHED had watched their inspiration more closely, they’d have seen exactly where that kind of behavior leads.