You don’t have to know a thing about One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest — either Ken Kesey’s bestselling novel or the 1975 Best Picture-winning film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher — to appreciate this latest creation from the Ryan Murphy weirdness factory. Ratched tells the backstory of one Mildred Ratched, the domineering, mind-games-playing nurse at a West Coast “psychiatric rehabilitation facility” in 1947. (Is there any good way to describe a mental hospital? Granted, the early 20th-century usage of “lunatic asylum” was pretty bad, though not as bad as “looney bin,” one of the labels used on this show.)
While the production credits have three men at the top (more on that in a moment), in front of the camera, Ratched is all about the ladies. Let’s meet them:
Sarah Paulson as Mildred Ratched
Louise Fletcher won all the trophies and helped seal Cuckoo’s Nest legacy as an AFI-vault-worthy film with her performance as Nurse Ratched. Still, there's no debating that she was second banana to the rebellious inmate McMurphy, played by Nicholson. This series revolves around Ratched, and is a great star vehicle for Paulson, the always-intense actress whose signature pose is staring straight ahead with a barely-curled smile.
Soldiering through a decade of roles on short-lived TV shows, Paulson broke out as the best thing on Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip in 2006. She continued to pick up character roles of increasing interest on TV shows and films before finding her way onto Murphy’s long-running anthology series American Horror Story. She joined the cast in Season 2, “Asylum,” which was also set at a mental hospital. She had juicy roles in Season 3 (“Coven”), Season 4 (“Freak Show”), Season 5 (“Hotel”), Season 6 (“Roanoke”), Season 7 (“Cult”), and two roles in Season 8 (“Apocalypse”) as well. She’ll be returning in a lead role on Season 10 of AHS, which is scheduled to begin production in October. Her most renowned role, and one she seemed born to play, was as prosecutor Marcia Clark on Murphy’s American Crime Story: The People v. O.J. Simpson. which won Paulson a 2016 Primetime Emmy for lead actress in a limited series or movie. Her most recent role was as a self-help guru who becomes unhinged every time she thinks about Donald Trump in HBO's Coastal Elites.
Cynthia Nixon as Gwendolyn Briggs
Though she became a household name as the ginger quarter of HBO’s iconic Sex and the City team, Nixon has become nearly as well known in recent years for her political activism, including a leftie challenge to Andrew Cuomo in the 2018 gubernatorial primary in New York. Nixon’s resumé is filled with political and topical roles, including as the daughter of candidate Tanner in the groundbreaking political comedy Tanner ’88 (a role she revived for the sequel 20 years later). She’s in that rare group of triple Law & Order guest stars, appearing on the second-ever L&O episode in 1990, Criminal Intent in 2010, and her Emmy-winning role on SVU as a woman thought to have dissociative identity disorder.
If you didn't see her as Emily Dickinson in the 2016 indie film A Quiet Passion, you should (it's on both Hoopla and Kanopy). Unbeknownst to me, I first saw Nixon in the 1980 film Little Darlings, a teen comedy in which Kristy McNichol — a heartthrob of mine at the time — and Tatum O’Neal competed to see who would lose their virginity first.
Sharon Stone as Lenore Osgood
Sharon Stone!!! The sexiest woman of the Nineties doesn't make many screen appearances these days, which is why each role she takes is worth catching. After her splashy debut opposite Ahnold in Total Recall (1990), Stone appeared in several steamy films that were panned by critics but reaped beaucoup box office bucks — Basic Instinct, Sliver, The Specialist — before winning everybody over as a mobster’s wife in Martin Scorsese’s Casino in 1995. On Ratched she plays a confidant of California’s governor (a blustery nincompoop played by Vincent D’Onofrio) and an ally of Nurse Ratched as she persuades the governor to make the rehabilitation of mental patients a campaign issue.
Sophie Okonedo as Charlotte Wells
Playing a patient with multiple personalities, Sophie Okonedo has a small role that has the potential to become quite a big one on Ratched. The British actress built her career in the 1990s mostly away from American audiences, other than a role as an African princess in the horrible sequel film Ace Ventura 2: When Nature Calls. (Actually, we would have heard from her sooner because she was cast in the lead role in B. Monkey in 1998, that is, until Harvey Weinstein… well, read this if you dare.) Okonedo’s star turn finally came with an Oscar-nominated role in Hotel Rwanda in 2004, followed by Tsunami: The Aftermath in 2006. She won a Tony in 2014 as Ruth Younger in the revival of Raisin in the Sun. She’s also a favorite in West End plays and in 2019 was made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire.
Judy Davis as Nurse Betsy Bucket
The Australian actress broke out playing a farmer in the 1979 film My Brilliant Career and it’s been pretty brilliant for Davis ever since. Her early parts called for a lot of pluck and feistiness, including her role in A Passage to India (1984) that earned Davis her first Oscar nomination. As George Sand in another period drama, Impromptu (1990), one critic raved, “Judy Davis makes her entrances as if she were straddling a cyclone.” During the Nineties she appeared in four Woody Allen films, sadly not picking up an Oscar nod for any of them (she was great in Husbands and Wives). On TV she won an Emmy for her role as a gay whisperer in Serving in Silence: The Margarethe Cammermeyer Story (1995), and another playing Judy Garland in a 2001 biopic, Me And My Shadows. Here she plays a foil for Nurse Ratched — and, perhaps also, an inspiration for her future career — as Bucket, the hospital’s no-nonsense chief nurse.
Jon Jon Briones as Dr. Richard Hanover
The anxiety-ridden, dyspeptic head of the psychiatric hospital is played by Jon Jon Briones, last seen in the Murphyverse as a Satanist named Ariel Augustus during the can-you-top-this eighth season of American Horror Story. His role on Ratched isn’t much of a pallet-cleanser from that: Hanover performs two lobotomies in the opening episodes. Still, it’s another memorable role for one of the most visible Filipinx actors working in show business today. (Why does his character have such a WASPy name? Watch and learn.)
Ryan Murphy and Ian Brennan, co-executive producers
Like The Politician before it, Ryan Murphy signed with Netflix to make Ratched in 2017 while he was still working at 21st Century Fox. (Then Disney announced it was buying Fox’s assets, and Murphy — worried that the FX executives who’d given him such a long leash over the years would be replaced by Disney bean-counters — put himself up for bids. Netflix signed him to a five-year $300 million deal. You’ve already seen the first fruit of that, the divisive Hollywood, which critics disliked and fans generally liked. Alas, ths same can't be said for two seasons of The Politician, which has made pretty much everyone say “meh.”) Brennan, who broke onto the scene with his idea for the show Glee, has been a frequent collaborator with Murphy ever since, including as co-executive producer of Hollywood.
Evan Romansky, co-creator
If you’re reading this and trying to get a script sold in Hollywood… you might want to stop reading. Ratched is based on a spec script that the 26-year-old Romansky wrote shortly after graduating from film school in 2016. He took it to a pitch fest, got a manager, got Murphy on board, and the next thing you know, Netflix (being Netflix) placed a massive two-season series order. As Malcolm in the Middle reminded us every week, life is unfair. But to the kid's credit, Ratched has a very clever premise and this classic character from literature and cinema now has new life thanks to Romansky’s backstory. Murphy and Brennan have amplified it in their usual way, with a darling Old Hollywood palette (Northern California edition) and just enough kink and bloodletting to satisfy American Horror Story fans.
Ratched drops on Netflix Friday September 18th.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.