Ryan Murphy has always been a little twisted. He has also, however, been hailed a champion of the broken, beaten, and damned, having brought to light countless stories of uniquely American marginalization with grace and razor-sharp writing. While Murphy usually nails his specific brand of progressive and distinctly Sarah Paulson-centric horror (see the first eight seasons of American Horror Story) his recent projects (The Politician and Hollywood) have, rather unfortunately, focused more on the aesthetic aspect of television and less on the actual quality of writing. Ryan Murphy has lost that je ne sais quoi that once defined and solidified his career in television, and Ratched—in all its racy, gory, technicolor glory—proves it.
Ratched generated significant internet chatter across various platforms prior to its release, primarily because of the fervor surrounding another Paulson/Murphy collaboration. Seeing as how American Horror Story and Glee have both amassed cult followings, it would have been unsurprising to see Ratched follow suit. The latest installment in Murphy’s $300 million deal with Netflix, however, is so poorly written that despite its visually stunning portrayal of postwar northern California, it’s almost unwatchable.
Opening with the gruesome triple murder of three Roman Catholic priests, Ratched is clearly a Ryan Murphy joint. At this point in his career, Murphy’s style has become a mixture of modern, big-budget set design and bizarrely macabre shock value, both of which make an appearance in the first five minutes of the first episode. As the audience watches the murderous Edmund Tolleson (played by another Murphy favorite, Finn Wittrock) furiously stab the third collar-wearing priest, it becomes glaringly obvious that Ratched is not a fresh take on the iconic character of Nurse Ratched—it’s merely a tired imitation of Murphy’s earlier work.
The series follows the origin story of Mildred Ratched, the sadistic nurse and primary antagonist of both the novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and its 1975 film adaptation, and her involvement with the aforementioned priest-murderer, Edmund Tolleson. Set in 1947, it offers a highly glamorized view of life inside of a leading psychiatric facility as well as the development of the lobotomy. This is the only true redeeming plotline in Ratched—the infamy of the lobotomy provides a touch of dramatic irony as the audience watches Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) get closer and closer to perfecting what is now known as a medical atrocity.
The worst atrocity of Ratched, however, is the squandering of Sarah Paulson’s talent. In the last decade, Paulson has become something of a figurehead for the Ryan Murphy fanbase. Much of her recent work—most of which happens to be excellent—has been on Murphy’s projects, save a season or two of American Horror Story. Paulson has proved herself time and time again to be one of the finest actresses of the new millennium, but her turn as Mildred Ratched is not one of those times.
Mildred Ratched is an evil woman. She is the original sadistic nurse. She is the stuff of nightmares. Paulson’s Ratched, however, is uncharacteristically boring and fragile. The problem isn’t necessarily Paulson’s acting—it’s Murphy’s writing. Where there would normally be biting wit, there is yawn-inducing filler dialogue. Where there would normally be riveting twists and turns, there are minutes of verbal exposition from a particularly poorly cast Nurse Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis). Even the conflict is lacking. There is (what feels like) a five-minute scene in which Ratched and Bucket spar over a peach. Yes, a peach.
It’s almost as if the quality of Murphy’s writing decreases as his budgets increase, signaling either a problem with Netflix’s mass production business model or with Murphy’s skill itself. Ryan Murphy is no longer the groundbreaking genius he was once branded as. Whatever that unnamable quality his work had before is long gone. To put it simply, Ryan Murphy has lost it. Hopefully it will return.
Featured image courtesy of Netflix