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Quality trash is our entertainment G-spot. There is nothing else like it. Films rarely hit it because they are too big and expensive and the target is too small. They deal only in binaries: success or failure, prestige or crap. This is not what we seek for the particular itch we want to scratch. Books are better. There are more of them, and the genre we are looking for is better established. Bookwise, Jacqueline Susann can be counted on to bring you to ecstasies and Shirley Conran is your next best arch manipulator.
But television is the most exquisitely attuned tool at your disposal, and Ryan Murphy wields it best of all. When he is on form, he cannot be beaten. His creations, whether or not he originated them, all bear his unmistakable imprimatur – camp, gorgeous, excessive, but rigorously worked out beneath. They include Nip/Tuck, the Glee behemoth and the anthology series American Horror Story (Jessica Lange restored to glory, Sarah Paulson gifted a new lease of life, roles and Emmy nominations and more for everyone from Kathy Bates to Lady Gaga) and American Crime Story (which gave us the likes of The People v OJ Simpson and The Assassination of Gianni Versace). Murphy’s last outing, Hollywood, which tried and by general consensus largely failed to do justice to the racial issues percolating through the 50s film industry or address their modern counterparts, was a rare misfire.
Now, let your parasexual thrills be unleashed, for his superior Netflix venture is here: Ratched. It provides the backstory to the psychiatric nurse made into a byword for institutional abuse of power and individual monstrousness by Louise Fletcher’s magnificent performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, the 1975 film version of Ken Kesey’s bestselling countercultural classic. Ratched, created by Murphy and Evan Romansky from the latter’s speculative script, is essentially a gothically grandiose instalment of American Horror Story. AHS: Lobotomy. Gird your loins.
Paulson plays the title role. Already a mistress of manipulation, Mildred Ratched soon inveigles her way into the Lucia mental hospital, run by Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones, another of Murphy’s repertory company). Hanover is not evil, or even unkind, but he is a passionate pioneer in his field, with all the worst that implies for the vulnerable patients in his care. Few programmes require a trigger warning for trepanning, but this one does, so please beware of episode two. Ratched secures her position by means of a little blackmail, importuning of suicide, poisoning and bold lipstick. As is the custom in a Murphy production, her wardrobe is to die for.
What her precise purpose is we do not know, but it is surely connected with the multiple murderer Edmund Tolleson (Murphy mainstay Finn Wittrock). Tolleson is due to arrive for assessment at the hospital after killing three priests and traumatising a fourth, who witnessed the throat-slitting, skull-smashing and monsignor-stabbing spree from under his bed. He is eventually delivered to the Lucia’s cavernous, vaulted wine cellar, which has been lined with bars and given the full Silence of the Lambs treatment, because go big gothic or go home, am I right?
It is all the most excellent fun. Paulson conveys a fathomless darkness while appearing to do almost nothing. When moments of viciousness break her affectless surface, it is genuinely disquieting. Another award surely beckons, to add to the others she has accrued under Murphy’s aegis. And probably one for Judy Davis, too, as Hanover’s righthand woman Nurse Bucket, a magnificently awful creation in a different way – the distilled bitter essence of someone who has been in her job too long, who should never have been there in the first place, and yet somehow found nothing else in life. She is suspicious of Ratched – not least because she can see the potential for usurpation of her privileged position – and is in many ways a thrilling match for her.
Somewhere underneath, Ratched also engages with questions about where evil comes from – are monsters born or made? – about how we treat the inwardly halt and lame, the blind trust we place in authority, and people’s capacity for exploitation and complicity, even if they fall short of the extremes here on show. You can, too, if you want. I am just going to lie back and enjoy.
Source: The Guardian
Keyword: Ratched review – gothic, gory thrills with the Cuckoo’s Nest villain | Television & radio