Is it possible to enjoy a TV series despite it being so poorly written that the central figure — the reason for the show’s existence — makes almost no sense, veering at random between embittered ice-cold murderess and kindly, loving heroine, a character in search of a decipherable self?
Well maybe just a little bit.
Watching executive producer Ryan Murphy’s flawed eight-episode season of “Ratched” — the backstory of the authoritarian nurse from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest” — has a few notable pleasures, especially the thoroughly wonderful turn by Judy Davis as Ratched’s jealous co-worker. In any other hands, Davis’s supporting role, the perfectly named Betsy Bucket, would likely be less satisfyingly outside of the box — less humorously goody-goody, less quietly vulnerable, less sly-eyed. Davis appears to be having a great time in her nurse’s cap, expertly infusing camp into Bucket’s bearing and into her various efforts to block Ratched’s ambitions.
Also seductive: The 1947-set show, available Friday on Netflix, is given a faux Hitchcockian atmosphere of suspense that is transporting, if not always suited to the broad and often gory material. As with many of Murphy’s shows, the visuals — both the playful camerawork and the artful production design — are aggressively eye-catching. The sweeping shots of the Northern California coastline, the shiny antique cars, the split screens, the bright dresses, gloves, kerchiefs, and lipstick, they all offer visual gratification regardless of how they do or do not inform the content. And, like Murphy’s similarly toned “American Horror Story,” the torture and the bloodshed — of which there are plenty, including a knitting-needle-styled lobotomy technique that may give you a sympathetic migraine — are gruesomely effective.
But yeah, the story itself ranges from bonkers to nonsensical, not least of all as Mildred Ratched becomes different people at different moments. Thanks to the compelling work of Sarah Paulson, one of Murphy’s regulars, Mildred isn’t a completely absurd construct whose sexual role play is out of left field; she’s intensely present and motivated in each scene. But when you step back to understand Mildred, the pieces don’t fit together. Likewise her boss at her new job at a cutting-edge psychiatric facility, a dodgy fellow named Dr. Hanover (Jon Jon Briones) who is either a brutal abuser or a well-meaning and even pioneering chap who’s limited by the tools of the era, I was never quite sure. When Hanover tries to wash his patients' pain away by literally boiling them in bathtubs, you may be inclined toward the former. Mildred shows up to get a job with Hanover for reasons that have roots in her tragic early years.
There are a number of subplots loosely intertwined. Dr. Hanover is working to receive state funding for his hospital from the governor, played brusquely by Vincent D’Onofrio. He wants to impress by rehabilitating a monster, specifically a young man named Edmund (Finn Wittrock), whom we meet as he is slaughtering a bunch of priests. Now known as “The Clergy Killer,” he sits in a cell in the insecure hospital’s basement — that won’t be problematic! — and begins an affair with a young nurse. Meanwhile, Corey Stoll is in the mix as a mysterious guy staying at the same picturesque seaside motel as Mildred. Cynthia Nixon, as the governor’s adviser and a closeted lesbian married to a gay man, also winds up in that motel, which is kept by Amanda Plummer’s owner, a woman who is eccentric for eccentricity’s sake. And Sharon Stone is afoot, too, playing a wealthy Cruella de Vil type with a grudge against Hanover and a pet monkey on her shoulder.
The series, created by Evan Romansky, has already been renewed, so perhaps Mildred’s journey toward cold, smirking, dictatorial leadership — which Louise Fletcher embodied so well in the 1975 movie — will become clearer in the next set of episodes. Perhaps the story will be less crowded with distractions and more focused on character development. The name Ratched calls to mind words like “ratchet” and “wretched,” but in this slick, inconsistent series she’s more a jumble of qualities whose truths are coyly withheld from us.
Starring: Sarah Paulson, Judy Davis, Jon Jon Briones, Sharon Stone, Finn Wittrock, Vincent D’Onofrio, Charlie Carver, Cynthia Nixon, Amanda Plummer, Corey Stoll, Sophie Okonedo, Alice Englert
On: Netflix, available Friday