Sarah Paulson’s first leading role in the sprawling Ryan Murphy multiverse was as journalist Lana Winters in American Horror Story: Asylum, the now-sprawling anthology’s second season. The season before, the actress had had a small supporting role as a medium counseling the residents of the namesake Murder House; in Asylum, she took the spotlight as a muckraker committed against her will to a ’60s-era mental institution. More than seven years and as many seasons later, Asylum still stands as the best of American Horror Story’s small library of installments. It has all the lurid maximalism of any Murphy production (Nazis! Demonic possession! Adam Levine getting his arm torn off in the cold open!), but also an emotional core in Paulson’s performance. A queer woman going up against the dual power structures of the medical system and the Catholic Church, Lana miraculously manages to emerge triumphant—riding off into the sunset, middle finger up.
Post-Asylum, Paulson has surpassed the likes of Darren Criss, Dylan McDermott, and Asylum costar Jessica Lange to become the single most prominent member of Murphy’s massive ensemble. She won an Emmy for her portrayal of Marcia Clark in American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson; she’s appeared in every season of Horror Story to date except 1984, the ninth and most recent; and she’s set to play Linda Tripp in the upcoming Crime Story chapter Impeachment, centered on Bill Cinton and Monica Lewinsky. Paulson’s collaborations with Murphy have also furthered her career outside of his empire, holding her own against Cate Blanchett in projects as diverse as Carol, Mrs. America, and Ocean’s 8.
This past weekend, Paulson returned to the Murphy fold for the latest era in his illustrious career. Ratched is the third Murphy show to premiere on Netflix, a partnership the streaming service paid an eye-watering $300 million for the privilege of forming, and the first to star Paulson in any capacity. An origin story for the domineering, abusive nurse from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Ratched marks relatively new territory for Murphy, who’s well-versed in true crime but has largely eschewed adaptations of fiction. But it is also, in some ways, an attempted return to form: Once again, Paulson anchors a horror-inflected story set at a mental institution—but this time as the villain, not the hero.
Ratched even transforms its namesake to have her better fit the Murphy mold. The show is technically created by Evan Romansky, who wrote the pilot as a film school graduate on the hunt for representation. “I was really just trying to think of some sort of IP that I could reimagine as my own and would have a title that people would recognize and actually want to read,” Romansky told Vulture. It’s a quote that’s earned plenty of jeers from critics exhausted by modern Hollywood’s abiding cynicism, but you can’t really argue with the results: Murphy snapped up a script that, by Romansky’s own admission, was more intended to get noticed than get made. Together, the two bring Mildred Ratched closer to Lana Winters than Ken Kesey’s, and later Louise Fletcher’s, tight-lipped oppressor.
Set 15 years before Kesey’s novel, in 1947, Ratched relocates Mildred’s domain from Oregon to Northern California, where the former Army nurse with mysterious motives schemes her way into a job at Monterey County’s Lucia State Hospital. In both the original book, inspired by Kesey’s stint working at a real-life psychiatric institution, and Milos Forman’s Oscar-winning film adaptation from 1975, Nurse Ratched is something of a cipher, more of a stand-in for social authority than an individual in her own right. In the novel, especially, she’s also a blatantly misogynist archetype, a de Kooning-esque collage of oversized breasts and garish orange lips. Much like the counterculture that produced it, the problems identified in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest are real, but it has a few problems of its own.
In light of these deficits, a Nurse Ratched origin story isn’t impossible to imagine as a revisionist take on a beloved classic, the way Lovecraft Country tries to reclaim its racist inspiration with Black protagonists and modern themes. But that undertaking would require a skill set far removed from Murphy’s own: attention to the source material, a nuanced feel for character, and a focused sense of purpose to explain what a story wants to accomplish and why it exists. Instead of explaining or recontextualizing its namesake, Ratched merely saddles her with an oppressively bleak backstory and recasts her as a closeted lesbian. It’s a flourish without basis in the original text, and worse yet, risks turning Nurse Ratched into a different kind of sexist stock character: the joyless, predatory gay woman who victimizes men out of thinly veiled self-hatred.
With Jack Nicholson in the lead, Forman’s film is situated squarely within the New Hollywood that took hold in the 1970s. (Thanks to a complicated rights situation involving actor Michael Douglas, Ratched is technically based on characters from the movie, not the book.) To match its new time frame, Ratched instead takes after Old Hollywood auteurs like Alfred Hitchcock and Douglas Sirk. Directing the first two episodes, Murphy makes the most of the craggy California coastline, one of Hitchock’s favorite locales. The sea is color-corrected to a fluorescent blue, while the lighting will occasionally wash a scene in blood red or emerald green. It’s gorgeous to look at, but only furthers the disconnect from anything recognizably Ratched-esque.
And while not very Cuckoo’s Nest, these aesthetic choices are very Ryan Murphy. Like Feud and Hollywood before it, Ratched revels in its period detail, now at “Netflix budget” levels of sumptuous opulence. (Sharon Stone joins Murphy’s extensive roster of aging divas as a wealthy widow with a grudge; her Orientalist manse puts anything on Selling Sunset to shame.) And like The Politician, Ratched takes a character-driven concept and turns its central character into a blank slate. Mildred is traumatized and driven by the need to help out her foster brother, a serial killer confined at the hospital. But beyond that, she’s whatever she needs to be to wring the most drama out of any given scene: alluringly sexual or off-puttingly frigid; harshly judgmental or deeply empathetic; coldly calculating or totally overwhelmed. It’s hard to tell whether Murphy understands who Mildred Ratched is—and for a show named Ratched, that’s not a good sign.
Murphy is now 0-for-3 in partnerships with his latest patron. (Critically speaking, that is—Netflix’s stubborn secrecy makes it hard to know whether he’s delivered new subscribers.) At Fox and FX, hits like American Horror Story and Glee became standard-bearers for TV’s larger sea change, a future where anthologies could usher in star power and teen musicals could command the national conversation. At Netflix, Murphy’s oeuvre thus far is part of something much less exciting: the quantity-over-quality content firehose that’s become the streamer’s M.O. Ever prolific, Murphy has proved capable of turning out three new series in the space of a year. That may be just fine for Netflix, if not for fans who’d rather not see Paulson’s talents go to waste.
Following The Politician’s fuzzy allegory and Hollywood’s insipid fantasia, Ratched’s misfire doesn’t come as a surprise—just more proof that the size of Netflix’s investment has yet to correlate with the quality of Murphy’s output. Compared to his past heights, they’re still a disappointment. Asylum is one of the examples that Murphy apologists tend to point to when explaining why they continue to keep the faith; it’s a rare instance of freewheeling chaos turning out for the best, like throwing a deck of cards up in the air and watching them fall into a perfect pyramid. Maybe that’s why Ratched has gotten such a rise out of other critics. A Ryan Murphy failure is nothing new. A failure that so directly invokes a past success? That’s a tougher pill to swallow.