Milos Forman’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest is an unforgettable, timeless masterpiece. Starring Jack Nicholson as Randall Patrick McMurphy, an institutionalized man who convinces his fellow mental patients to rebel against Nurse Mildred Ratched, it’s one of only three movies to ever take home the Big Five at the Academy Awards: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay. It was praised in part for its incredible ensemble cast, which included Danny DeVito (It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Twins) and Christopher Lloyd (Back to the Future, Taxi) in some of their first performances. Perhaps its most enduring cultural impact was Nurse Ratched, quite possibly the most evil woman in any movie ever. Universally dislikeable, Ratched is manipulative, controlling, and in general just highly unlikeable.
So wouldn’t it be a great idea to make a Netflix show about her?
Perhaps the most unnecessary revival since The Godfather Part III, Ratched tells the story of Mildred Ratched 20 years before One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest as she enters the field of nursing. When I first heard about Ratched through a Rolling Stone article about what to watch this September, I had to check the date to make sure it wasn’t April Fools Day. It seemed like a bad joke, something you would find in The Onion’s backlog. And it is a bad joke. But, unfortunately, this joke carries truth: there is a Netflix show called Ratched, and it does indeed star Sarah Paulson as the titular Big Nurse.
I don’t understand the thought process that went into this show. Unlike Joker, which I consider to be an at worst functional movie, Mildred Ratched is not part of a CNCU (Cuckoo’s Nest Cinematic Universe). There was one novel released in 1962, one play adaptation, and one film, all of which were entirely rooted in Ken Kesey’s original novel. Also, unlike the Joker, who is at least fun to watch in almost every interpretation, the original Cuckoo’s Nest is not a cute or campy movie. There is nothing fun and nostalgic about Nurse Ratched who, throughout almost the entire movie, emotionally tortures patients with mental illnesses. She’s not warm, or charismatic, or even that lively; she is meant to exist almost entirely as a manipulative, evil, loathsome person.
The show makes some notable departures from the original film. For one, the grey, drab color palette is swapped for a very gaudy and colorful new style. Most characters talk in extended quips or puns; it’s pure camp. The show seems confused about what it wants to be. I turned it off after the first episode—there is a “callback” to the original which was so offensive that I found myself unable to keep watching. To explain the event would be to spoil the original film and the garbage pile that is currently trending #1 on Netflix, so if you have not seen One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, I would strongly advise you to stop reading now.
In the climax of the original film, protagonist R.P. McMurphy breaks two prostitutes into the mental hospital and throws a party. Towards the end of the party, McMurphy convinces Billy Bibbit, a shy and reserved patient with a stutter, to sleep with one of the prostitutes, Candy, whom Billy has a crush on. He does eventually sleep with Candy, but when he wakes up the next day, Nurse Ratched tells Billy that he should be ashamed of himself, and that she will have to tell his mother—who she is close friends with—about the incident. Unable to imagine how his mother will feel, he smashes a window and kills himself by slashing his throat with a shard of broken glass. The entire sequence, from Billy waking up to his eventual suicide, is not a very long one —maybe five minutes. It is an utterly tragic five minutes, though, maybe the most gut-wrenching scene I’ve ever watched in a film.
It was disappointing but utterly unsurprising then when Paulson’s interpretation of Ratched does something similar. Towards the end of the first episode, she convinces one of the patients that he will never get out and is better off killing himself, and takes him to the Superintendent’s office so that he can use a letter opener to, you guessed it folks, slash his throat and kill himself. All this so Ratched can blame his death on the negligence of another nurse and secure employment at the facility. Bear in mind, this is the protagonist of the show, the person we are supposed to root for. Ratched should not exist. At least, not with Ratched or any other characters for One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. If this were a campy show about a bad nurse who will stop at nothing to advance her own career, I wouldn’t mind. I have no issue with bad people doing bad things in TV shows (for context, my favorite show is The Sopranos). However, Ratched’s crime is not choosing to exist, but rather choosing to exist alongside an American tragedy. Kesey’s novel became a defining piece of 1960’s literature. Milos Forman’s film became a defining work of the 1970’s, sitting confidently at #33 on the AFI’s Top 100 American Films List, right below The Godfather Part II. My only hope is that Ratched becomes nothing and goes on to define nothing, topping no lists except mine, of the worst things I’ve seen all year.