They say the definition of insanity is to read a quote about the definition of insanity and expect it to be different from the one you’ve heard a million times before. I, however, would argue that the definition of insanity is to view a new Ryan Murphy show with the expectation that this one might actually be worth watching.
Annoyingly, and against my better judgment, I had high hopes for his new show, “Ratched” (on Netflix from Friday). After all, as well as starring Sarah Paulson – who could make even C-SPAN watchable – and an embarrassment of acting riches (plus Sharon Stone), this features a character from one of Hollywood’s most beloved movies: Nurse Ratched of “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” infamy.
Yet here’s the thing. Ratched, played by Louise Fletcher in Milos Forman’s Oscar-sweeping 1975 adaptation of the Ken Kesey novel, is iconic for what she represents rather than the character herself. In a film full of memorable lines (“Mmm, Juicy Fruit”), I would argue that Ratched contributes precisely none of them.
Rather, she’s the manifestation of a heartless system, a white starched uniform going head to head with Jack Nicholson’s nonconformist R.P. McMurphy in an Oregon mental institute. Ratched is the cold-blooded authoritarian seeking to control the hotheaded contrarian for fear he’ll start the revolution. As McMurphy famously complains to the institute head in frustration: “That fucking nurse, man. She, she ain’t honest.”
Perhaps that was the line that provided the inspiration for Ryan Murphy’s prequel, which takes us back to 1947 – 16 years before the film was set – and the days when Nurse Ratched was plain old Mildred Ratched. Yet in just one illustration of how slipshod this entire production is, at 45, Paulson is already five years older than Fletcher was when she played the older Ratched on screen in the mid-’70s.
The likes of “Hannibal” and “Bates Motel” were successful prequels that added to our understanding of monstrous men. “Ratched,” however, reverse-engineers the most ridiculously tawdry backstory onto what was potentially a fascinating idea, offering us the most cartoonish of portrayals.
While there’s a wonderful ambiguity to the portrayal of Ratched in the movie – is she a sadist who has no desire to rehabilitate her patients, or does she truly believe she can help the likes of McMurphy, as she claims? – all of that is ditched here.
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But before Paulson’s Ratched rocks up with her pastel outfits (her wardrobe is without doubt the most entertaining thing in the series), we have to suffer an opening scene that feels like a pastiche of a serial killer movie. In it, a disturbed young man, Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock), turns up at a priests’ home and embarks on a killing spree.
The entire show is then perfectly encapsulated by a newspaper headline that describes the attack thusly: “Clergy killer nutso? A monstrous monsignor murdering purveyor of priestly patricide.” Seriously, I’ve had bowls of alphabet soup make more sense.
So begins our descent into madness as Ratched turns up in California and finagles herself a job at the Lucia State Mental Hospital, where Edmund is to be held while head shrink Dr. Richard Hanover determines whether he’s mentally fit to stand trial.
Why is Ratched so desperate to land a job here? Is she really who she claims to be? Let’s just say a 2-year-old with a head cold could connect the dots in this particular story.
Like something out of ‘Selling Sunset’
It soon becomes apparent that “Ratched” is best experienced with the sound down and enjoyed solely as a visual pleasure. For starters, this is the most beautiful nuthouse you’ve ever seen in your life – even the supposedly grim basement looks like something from “Selling Sunset.” And Murphy never met a corridor he didn’t want to include in a scene, but only after polishing its floor so it’s even buffer than his male actors and making sure it contains more lights than a giant Christmas tree.
Added bonus: With the sound on mute, you’ll be spared a horribly bombastic soundtrack that owes a considerable debt – nay, royalties – to Bernard Herrmann’s “Vertigo” score.
Of course, spectacular design is the reason Murphy’s shows win awards: his previous Netflix show set in postwar California, “Hollywood,” is up for a ridiculous 12 Emmy Awards this weekend, many of which acknowledge its look. Trust me, though, Donald Trump has a better chance of becoming the next mayor of Portland, Oregon, than “Ratched” has of ever winning any writing awards. Most of the scripts were written – in crayon, I assume – by Evan Romansky, who must share the blame for this farrago with Murphy.
“Do you have scat throwers here? Patients who throw their feces? Because that won’t faze me,” Mildred says during her introductory interview at the hospital. Well of course it won’t – not after the amount of crap her character has thrown at her in these scripts.
Here are just three howlers: “Scrubbing someone’s blood out of Saxony pile is a rather intimate act.” “I was first chair violin with the London Symphony Orchestra, you shit.” And, my personal favorite, “You love your monkey more than you love me!” That one’s directed at Sharon Stone’s bonkers millionaire character, and even Sharon deserves better than this.
The biggest frustration is seeing how much talent is being wasted on this nonsense – it’s like hiring the, well, London Symphony Orchestra to play Justin Bieber’s greatest hits.
Let’s at least hope that Judy Davis knew what to expect when she learned that her character was called Nurse Betsy Bucket. As for Vincent D’Onofrio’s groping governor, all I can say is that his alien in “Men in Black” made a far more convincing human than his politician does here.
Then there’s Paulson herself, who seems unable to escape Murphy’s clutches after entering his orbit with “Nip/Tuck” over 15 years ago. Sure, it must be great to have a big-shot producer always creating characters for you. But can’t a friend introduce her to someone who can actually write?
This is basically “American Horror Story: Asylum – Redux,” and has as much to do with “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” as McDonald’s has to do with “The Michelin Guide.” They took an iconic medical character and Ryan Murphied her. It happened to be Nurse Ratched, but it may as well have been Nurse Jackie, “Hot Lips” or even Dr. Meredith Grey.
Someone should warn Barack Obama – who says “Cuckoo’s Nest” is his favorite movie – that he should avoid “Ratched” at all costs. He’s suffered enough disappointments this year without adding this shoddy show, which besmirches the good name of a classic, to the list.
‘Challenger: The Final Flight’
Most people over the age of 40 remember where they were when they heard about the space shuttle Challenger disaster on January 28, 1986. I certainly do, and it’s an event that has held a morbid fascination for me ever since.
The new four-part Netflix documentary “Challenger: The Final Flight” is hardly covering uncharted territory with its examination of the tragedy. Indeed, the event may be one of the most covered in modern history, including several fictional takes (the best is 2013’s “The Challenger Disaster,” in which William Hurt played Nobel Prize-winning physicist Richard Feynman at the government inquiry).
All of which begs the question: what more is there left to say or learn?
Well, there are two vital things that make this documentary unmissable. First, this is a story of hubris and negligence on such a vast scale that we need to be reminded of it at regular intervals – especially those who never lived through the actual events.
Second, this series focuses primarily on the human side of the story rather than the technical one. A wise choice because, let’s face it, there really isn’t anything new to add about the fatal O-ring flaw that caused the explosion.
You know you’re in safe hands from the off as the documentary relives those agonizing 74 seconds of the Challenger flight and, at the fateful moment, focuses on the literally jaw-dropping reaction of a key NASA worker (astronaut Richard Covey) in the control room.
Directors Daniel Junge and Steven Leckart take us all the way back to the start of the space shuttle program in the ’70s, when then-President Richard Nixon earmarked $5 billion (chump change, as it turned out) for the project. Then, in 1978, NASA recruited 35 new astronauts to man the seven-person crews on its “space trucks,” a process brilliantly captured here.
There’s plenty of fantastic footage of the early training (“Trial by water,” as someone puts it) and inaugural flights, and subsequent public disinterest when a space shuttle launch became as mundane as a plane taking off.
This led to such bizarre ideas as sending Big Bird into space (allegedly vetoed because the “Sesame Street” star’s costume wouldn’t fit in the crew compartment). There’s also hilarious footage of Jerry Seinfeld suggesting how they could get television audiences viewing again: by selecting someone who actively doesn’t want to go. Then there’s that fateful decision to send a schoolteacher on a mission...
The directors interview spouses and family of the six astronauts and schoolteacher Christa McAuliffe who died on the Challenger, taking you beneath the spacesuits to get a sense of what these people – five men and two women – were really like. Sure it’s a cliché, but this gang really did have the right stuff, making NASA’s ultimate disdain for their lives all the more painful to watch.
As well as amazing stories about the astronauts – Ron McNair was from a town in South Carolina where Blacks weren’t allowed to take books out of the library, which almost led to his arrest when he decided to challenge that – and some shockingly unrepentant interviews from two of the people who ultimately sent the crew to their deaths, “The Final Flight” also highlights NASA’s fatal flaws.
The most glaring for me is that, instead of really being a giant leap for all mankind, it was all too often a jingoistic enterprise about American self-aggrandizement. When the first space shuttle, Columbia, successfully touched down in 1984, for instance, NASA’s head spoke of it proving “once again that the United States is number one,” to predictable flag-waving and cheers. The dream of conquering space was far too big for one nation to handle – heck, even the makers of “Away” recognized that in their recent space soap opera (also on Netflix).
“Challenger: The Final Flight” is ultimately a poignant, worthy tribute to McNair, McAuliffe, captain Dick Scobee, the other crew members and the many genius minds at NASA. Of course, the documentary’s brilliance means we now need a sequel about the 2003 Columbia disaster and the end of the space shuttle program.
“Ratched” and “Challenger: The Final Flight” are available now on Netflix.