Controversies over depictions of mental illness in film and TV are nothing new. Popular culture has only rarely proven itself up to the task of tackling the matter in an informed, nuanced way, so the appearance of a new show that tries to engage with the issue is practically guaranteed to trigger a debate.
That's certainly been the case with Ratched, Netflix's new eight-episode thriller. Ratched takes the character of the same name - the ruthless head nurse of the mental institution where Ken Kesey's 1962 novel and Milos Forman's 1975 movie adaptation One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest are set – and creates for her a prequel that provides her with a backstory.
Created by newcomer Evan Romansky and developed by Ryan Murphy, the feted creator of hit TV shows like Glee and American Horror Story, Ratched tells the story of how stylish young Mildred Ratched begins working at a psychiatric hospital in Northern California in the late 1940s. Though superficially every inch the dedicated nurse, it soon becomes clear that there's more to Nurse Ratched than meets the eye as she veers between benevolence and sadism, “revealing that true monsters are made, not born,” as the press release for the series claims. While the nurse Ratched of the film and book was interpreted variously as a symbol of heartless institutionalised power or as an embodiment of misogynistic patriarchal fears about female liberation, the Mildred we meet in Ratched is an even more ambiguous character, and the show seems to want to highlight that however awful Nurse Ratched's methods may seem to us, they are in fact representative of what were at the time considered the best approaches to treating mental illness.
Predictably, critical response to the show has been divided. While reviewers have praised its production design and Sarah Paulson's performance in the title role, and welcomed the fact that Murphy seems to have reigned in some of his more sensationalist tendencies, much of the reaction has taken the line that Ratched botches its attempt to engage with its subject matter. The show has been accused of offering a confused and confusing depiction of its lead character despite its attempts to humanise her, with the storyline revealing that she's a lesbian and implying that her behaviour is the result of childhood trauma while at the same time showing how she cynically manoeuvres to obtain her own dubious ends. There's also been criticism of the reductive way the hospital’s patients are shown as little more than caricatures which exist only to serve the purpose of the narrative, and the show's use of explicit images of violence and gore can seem uncomfortably close to exploitation.
But if Ratched does have anything to add to the debate it may be its attempt to highlight how society fails in the way it treats those who are struggling, encouraging viewers to take thoughtful look at the repercussions of trauma and to attempt to try to learn from and engage with it, rather than simply to dismiss it. If it manages that, Ratched may be making a worthwhile contribution to the conversation after all.