Monday, September 28, 2020

Netflix: Review of RATCHED: Notorious Nursing

 September 28, 2020

We first met Nurse Mildred Ratched in Ken Kesey's acclaimed 1962 novel "One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest" as the authoritative and antagonistic head nurse of a mental ward in a hospital. The novel, which was a description of and criticism over the state of psychiatric care in the US at that time, had Nurse Ratched as the symbol of the insidious effects of the various methods employed by ward administrators over their psychologically-troubled patients. 

The novel was adapted into a Broadway play in 1963. To prove its lasting appeal, this play had numerous stagings up to the latest in 2018, including a Tony-winning revival in 2001. There was a multi-awarded film version in 1973 which would only be the second of only three films to win the top five Oscar categories in the Academy Awards, namely Best Picture, Best Director (Milos Forman), Best Adapted Screenplay, Best Actor (Jack Nicholson) and Best Actress for Louise Fletcher for playing Nurse Ratched. 

In 1947, former military nurse Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) drove over to Lucia State Hospital in Northern California to be employed in its staff. The mental health facility was headed by director Dr. Richard Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) and his head nurse Betty Bucket (Judy Davis). One of the high-profile patients confined there was Edmund Tolleson (Finn Wittrock) who had been arrested for the murder of four Catholic priests.

As Mildred proceeded with her secret plans at Lucia, Mildred got herself associated with other characters outside work, like sleazy inn manager Louise (Amanda Plummer), California Gov. George Willburn (Vincent D'Onofrio) and his press secretary Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon), as well as the very wealthy, very vengeful socialite Lenore Osgood (Sharon Stone) and Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll), a hitman under her employ.

This 8-episode series was developed by the prolific Ryan Murphy, the creative genius behind such landmark TV shows like "Nip/Tuck", "Glee" and "American Horror Story," with concept created by Evan Romansky. Just earlier this year, Murphy released "Hollywood" which was a nostalgic but flawed look-back at the film actors and studios post-World War II. Since "Ratched" was set in the same era, the glamorous style of that previous series blended fluidly into this look of this one.The inclusive race and LGBTQ aspects are also present here. 

The casting of Jon Jon Briones in the key role of Dr. Hanover is a big deal for Filipino viewers. Briones first got into the public consciousness when he made it into the ensemble of the original run of Ms. Saigon in London in 1989. He would eventually get to play the Engineer, even earning an Olivier nomination in the 2014 revival run of "Ms. Saigon" on the West End. It was very surprising to see an American series with a Filipino as a major character. He seemed so out of place at first, but with his quirky portrayal in subsequent episodes, Briones eventually convinced us that Dr. Hanover belonged in that crazy world. 

Sarah Paulson had strong screen presence in her skillful portrayal of the complex title character, whom you can't really fully figure out until tells us herself in Episode 7. We get to see a flashback of Ratched's traumatic back story in Episode 6, told with the help of puppets. However, those who have seen Louise Fletcher's Ratched in the 1973 film may find Sarah Paulson's Ratched unconnected. Judy Davis portrayed Nurse Bucket delightfully tongue-in-cheek. Sophie Okonedo's multi-nuanced portrayal of dissociative patient Charlotte Webb is also noteworthy.

There was a lot of shock value in Dr. Hanover's outlandish experimental therapeutic approaches. Those absurd lobotomy scenes, done through the temples or through the orbits, only under sedation (!), were the scenes that really made me squirm. On the other hand, there are also disgusting scenes graphically depicting murders, dismemberment or torture --  but these are not surprising anymore given the level of violence in TV shows these days. I appreciated the Hitchcockian noir aspects in both camera work and musical score here. It would be interesting to see how they would sustain the shock factor in the second season which was clearly indicated at the ending.

Right off the bat, there were elegant period production design, costumes, make-up and hairstyles to bring us back to the late 1940s to the early 1960s. The clothes of Paulson and Stone were particularly noteworthy as was the interior design of the Lucia Hospital. It is this flashy and fabulous visual style that made this series very compelling to watch. The development of Mildred's story may eventually not turn out exactly as we were expecting, especially given the strong premise of the pilot episode. However, the visual impact was always on point, and that look seemed to be priority over logic in storytelling.  7/10

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