Ratched (Season One)

atchedposterThis was brilliant and appalling in equal measure.

Firstly, and here’s why I waited until now to watch it (this originally dropped on Netflix in September last year) – what’s the preoccupation with prequels and origin stories? This series could be about anyone, they could have written about an original character and told the exact same story, it didn’t need to be Mildred Ratched of One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. It could have been any nurse, in any asylum, in any place (in fact it probably is, as the film took place in Oregon, not this series’ California), and the character as far as I recall (its been many years since I last saw the film) was not some super-heroine needing an origin story.

So what gives? Is it all just about having a ‘hook’, a gimmick, to hang a series over, to make ‘selling’ it easier?  Is this where we are now with getting anything greenlit by a studio? Are creatives so bereft of ideas that they have to mine all their film collections looking for any possible narrative hook to spin from? Or is the only thing studios/streamers understand now the Marvel MCU/Disney Star Wars school of carpet-bombing an IP for any possible spin-off?

To add a further mix of confusion, this is essentially a remake of Ryan Murphy’s second season of his American Horror Story, which was titled Asylum, and even stars one of that season’s stars, Sarah Paulson, as the titular character Mildred Ratched. Like Asylum, Ratched is full of bizarre characters, crazy situations, gory deaths, violent ends: a delirious cacophony of excess. People are lobotomised, boiled, shot, burnt, impaled, stabbed, smothered…

Not once but several times did I shake my head and comment to my wife “these characters are all monsters.” You could argue there is not one redeemable character or anyone slightly approximating ‘normal’ here at all: a rogues gallery of misfits and oddballs. Indeed it has a pretty formidable cast lining up as these freaks: Judy Davis, Cynthia Nixon, Sharon Stone, Vincent D’Onofrio, Corey Stoll, Amanda Plummer, its a pretty cool bunch of character actors competing in the chew-the-scenery stakes, and I’d argue the show actually gets stolen by Sophie Okonedo who plays a patient with multiple personalities: she is absolutely the best reason to watch this show. She’s a murderous female Two-Face multiplied by ten and I could watch her in a show of her own (hey, maybe this show has already got its own spin-off sorted).

One sequence has a prisoner on Death Row being taken to his execution room, the viewer having been shown in slow graphic detail the process of said execution via lethal injection. Once in the execution room however, the waiting Governor Wilburn (D’Onofrio) gleefully pulls aside a white sheet covering the apparatus to reveal it has been replaced by an electric chair. The prisoner shrieks in horror as he’s strapped in while Wilburn reaches to the power switch and fries his victim- here’s a politician who gets his own hands dirty for the votes.

You either accept the camp, pulpish fun of it all being written in big thick crayon or snort in disgust and reach for the off button: as much Wretched as Ratched. For my part I actually enjoyed it but I admit feeling a little guilty about that- I was watching it aghast at some of the twists and turns feeling I was being had most of the time. A character is shot in the stomach and near death one minute and a few scenes later is up and walking around fine (the scenes in between being about another character on the run from the police and caught the next morning only adding to my confusion re: the passage of time). You just cannot take it seriously as it stumbles over plot holes and characters doing bizarre 180’s just because it suddenly suits the plot (such as there is one). Usually you get an interest in a character just before they get murdered in horrible fashion but the six characters that survive to the end of the finale are thankfully the best and hint at great possibilities for a second season.

I was a fan of Murphy’s American Horror Story show and rate Asylum as its best offering by some margin, so watching a Greatest Hits remake of that show was pretty perfect for me. Murphy would be no doubt horrified at me lazily summarising Ratchet as Asylum MkII but it appears pretty clear to me. I’m just mystified why they likely wasted so much money getting the rights to the Mildred Ratched character at all, any links to the film appear pretty tenuous to me so far and it would be no worse being something wholly seperate, unless the second season ties things up somehow. But tonally, this is definitely more American Horror Story than One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest by a very considerable gory margin.

True Detective Season 2 (2015)

true12016.5: True Detective Season Two (Blu ray)

Season Two makes the unforgivable (in some eyes) sin of not being True Detective Season One. I think it’s a shame people were so intent on getting more of the same and were so appalled when faced with something else. Me, I’ve no problem with it being different- that’s the genius of these anthology-format shows, each season offers something different, a fresh take on the basic format. It worked for the second season of Fargo and had mixed results with American Horror Story, but I think it worked very well for True Detective.

Season Two is a great piece of work. Its a hard-boiled, pulp-paperback film noir crime drama. Its an urban nightmare of characters trapped in a concrete, neon-drenched world they cannot fully understand and certainly cannot control. Its confusing, its contradictory, its fascinating, its full of incredible performances.

I seem to be in the minority though- a lot of people really REALLY disliked this season. I find that interesting.

Maybe people were made uncomfortable by this season because it wasn’t easy to disseminate; the plot was confusing, yes, but so is real life, and yes, by the series finale some of the good guys died and some of the bad guys prospered, but that’s like real life too. Life doesn’t always have a happy ending- in fact I think it could be argued that by series end, there isn’t a happy ending for anybody but the bad/corrupt people. That frustrates, I know. And yes it is rather labyrinthine over the eight episodes- even though I loved it, I can’t say I fully understood the complicated web of plot and subplot- but that’s such perfect noir, or maybe Hollywood Noir in this case and I’m fine with that.

It would be argued by some that, on the basis of expectations from the first series, the show should simply be a mystery, about a murder to solve. In season two, the murder and the establishment of the task force to solve it is almost incidental, it’s not really what the series is ultimately about. That may have been a step too far for many and evidently upset plenty of fans from season one. While it was certainly a brave move by HBO and the programme makers to make a show that distanced itself so much from the first series, unfortunately the negativity can’t help but impact on an eventual third season. I guess a return to something more akin to the first season is inevitable next time around.

I think the way I watched it may well helped, but that’s the beauty of binge-watching tv boxsets- in this case, two episodes per night over four consecutive nights, the series unfolding like the chapters of a novel. Perhaps weekly airings would have frustrated, weakened its impact; it calls into question how such programmes are aired and consumed by its audience these days. That said, I think this series was so different to season one that part of that audience would never like it however they watched it.

true3The acting is universally excellent- even Vince Vaughn delivers. But Colin Farrell is amazing in this show. Strange to think I was only watching him in the dismal Total Recall remake last week and here he is in such incredible form. I guess its all in the material. There is a scene late in the series -I hesitate to go into detail so as to not spoil anything- when the camera dwells on his face in silence as he reacts to a revelation about something from his past; in his changing expression you can see his mind racing, disintegrating as he feels his world unravelling about him. Its a great performance throughout the season but this moment is a highlight.

Rachel McAdams, too, is pretty amazing. Her character, like the others, is haunted by an event in her past which she cannot escape from without self-destructive action. It puts her in awful danger in one incredibly gripping scene, when she gets herself into a depraved sex party where the rich and powerful use and abuse women, and she has to try escape it and rescue someone (in a final irony typical of this show, that someone didn’t even want saving). Like  the event from her past, the experience is something that will haunt her,  another stone to carry, another weight on her forever. All of the leading characters seem to have seen things or done things that they cannot escape from. Again, that’s just perfect noir.

true2The cinematography is great- its a beautiful show to look at. Crushed blacks, hot reds, deep greens, it’s all those gaudy pulp-paperback covers brought to vivid life. The music is just as dark, reminding me of Twin Peaks at times. Indeed, I wouldn’t be too surprised if next year’s Twin Peaks revival looks and sounds a lot like True Detective Season Two. As a fan of Twin Peaks, maybe that’s why I enjoyed this season so much.

I love Film Noir and I think as an homage to that genre, True Detective Season Two absolutely nailed it.  It’s a modern day Chinatown, a story in which the place and the events within it dwarf the characters, a place full of bent politicians and corrupt cops, and pasts that return to haunt and destroy the protagonists. I think it’s great, remarkable television. I think this was a great series, and I look forward to watching it again.