Ryan Murphy is like a magician.
He always puts on a spectacle, dazzling you with expensive production values, visual delights and handsome actors.
But it's often smoke and mirrors, designed to hide the fact that at the core of so many of his series, there's not much there. It's why you should never find out how a magician pulls off a trick – it usually disappoints.
Ratched, the last offering from Murphy's mega-deal with Netflix, follows the path of his first two series, The Politician and Hollywood. Lots of pizzazz, very little heart.
Where there is heart, it's not the poignant and affecting type, it's more the blood and viscera type. Oh, yes, we're talking full body horror territory – stabbed torsos, amputated limbs and crushed-in skulls. Hmmm, delightful.
Don't eat a rich meal beforehand, or it might just come back up. At best, it'll make you queasy.
We're getting ahead of ourselves. First, the premise, which is that Ratched is a prequel series to Ken Kesey's book One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, which was adapted in 1975 by Milos Forman into a film starring Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher.
Nicholson's performance as a sex criminal faking insanity to avoid prison for a "cushy" mental hospital sabbatical is iconic. But more memorable was Fletcher's nurse Ratched, a sadistic and controlling villain who would come to symbolise institutional cruelty.
The idea of an origin story for Mildred Ratched has promise – how did she become this cinematic bogeyman? A devil-horned being who imposes order through discipline and uses lobotomy as a weapon?
Ratched is set in 1947 in the post-war period. Mildred Ratched (Sarah Paulson) arrives at a northern California institution run by Dr Hanover (Jon Jon Briones). She manipulates her way into a job, seemingly to be part of Dr Hanover's pioneering methods of "treating" so-called mental maladies, including lesbianism, melancholy and forgetfulness.
But Mildred has an alternative agenda, which is made clear by the end of the first episode.
The institution's head nurse, Betsy Bucket (Judy Davis), engages in a battle of wills with Mildred while young nurse Dolly (Alice Englert) proves too easy for Mildred to use for her own means.
Meanwhile, the state's Governor is looking to use Dr Hanover's work to paint himself as progressive in the upcoming election, encouraged by his staffer Gwendolyn Briggs (Cynthia Nixon).
There's also a subplot involving a wealthy heiress played by Sharon Stone and a mysterious man, Charles Wainwright (Corey Stoll), who's staying at the same sea-cliff motel as Mildred.
Paulson, Nixon, Stone, Davis and Stoll – that is an extraordinary cast. And they all turn in brilliant performances, in particular Paulson and Nixon whose characters explore a forbidden bond in a time of social judgment.
It's probably the show's most compelling story element, powered by those performances more than anything else. But there is an aspect in which contextualising Mildred Ratched also deflates her menace.
Even though there are many threads and a lot going on, Ratched often feels like there's no momentum, sagging after the relatively propulsive first two episodes. Once the story is established, it doesn't feel like it's going anywhere.
Ratched was originally a feature film spec script by creator Evan Romansky, found and nurtured by Murphy into a series. One wonders if it wouldn't have functioned better as a movie, instead of trying – and failing – to sustain itself for eight one-hour episodes.
Any hint of psychological horror quickly becomes body horror – this is a series that is mostly text, very little subtext. Anything a scene or the series is trying to say, you count on a character to actually say it.
And it relies heavily on shock over nuance – yes, we're talking about those amputated limbs or drilled skulls again.
Whereas as something like Pose or The Assassination of Gianni Versace threw a lot at its audience, it also had a unique perspective on the social context, which anchored the soul of those shows. Ratched does not, feeling like an incomplete jigsaw puzzle.
What Ratched does offer is visual sparkle, because like almost any Murphy-related series, it looks incredible.
Vibrant colours like the turquoise of the nurses' uniforms, the scarlet red of Mildred's gloves and the mustard of her skirt-suit pop against the diffused light of the northern Californian setting.
The series, the first episode of which was directed by Murphy, also owes more to Alfred Hitchcock than it does to Kesey or Forman, including a heavy use of wide shots.
There's the same stretch of coastline as in Vertigo, while the damask red wallpaper in a restaurant almost matches the wallpaper in Ernie's, where Jimmy Stewart's Scottie first eyes the doomed Madeleine Elster.
Meanwhile, Ratched's score by Mac Quayle echoes Bernard Herrmann's rich, unsettling compositions to the point that it steps over the line from homage to derivative.
Once again, it's a case of style over substance.
That's kind of Ratched's problem. It throws a lot of razzle dazzle at you and hope you won't notice what's not there.
• Ratched is streaming now on Netflix.