Anyone who has read Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or seen Miloš Forman’s 1975 film adaptation, will remember the formidable Nurse Ratched. Louise Fletcher won an Oscar for playing the role, and Ratched herself keeps cropping up on lists of the greatest ever movie villains. All the same, I doubt more than three people have ever wanted to know what the character got up to before she was the tyrannical head nurse at the Salem State Hospital. There was certainly no need for an eight-part Netflix series revealing her back story, so Ratched might well have you grumbling about the film and TV industry’s tedious obsession with prequels.
Watch this compulsively bingeable series, and that grumbling won’t last long. The character in Evan Romansky’s blackly comic melodrama might be vaguely similar to the one in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, with some background details in common (both were army nurses during World War Two). But Romansky’s tone and plotting have less to do with Kesey and Forman’s work than with Thomas Harris’s and Alfred Hitchcock’s. There are echoes of Basic Instinct, too – and that’s even before Sharon Stone sashays in with a monkey in a pink dress perched on her shoulder. Imagine all of the most charismatic and dangerous characters from Silence of the Lambs, Hannibal, Psycho, Vertigo and Basic Instinct gathered in a small Northern Californian town in the 1940s, and you’ll have a flavour of the lavish banquet of death, depravity and designer millinery that Ratched serves up.
In a long overdue starring role, Sarah Paulson is wonderfully poised as Mildred Ratched, poker-faced and bolt upright, apparently reserved and obviously steely, but with flutters of hidden anxiety. At any rate, Paulson definitely knows how to lend gravitas and power to such lines as, “No one has ever put their name on a peach with a felt tip!” In the first episode, Mildred drives to the Californian coast, checks into a clifftop motel, and then lies, blackmails and poisons her way into a job at a mental institution for her own nefarious reasons. Mind you, who wouldn’t want to work there? The institution is an art-deco palace, with huge chandeliers, offices the size of tennis courts, and an airy foyer that would be just right for high tea or evening cocktails.