Since 1988, Don Mancini’s Chucky (Brad Dourif) has terrorized his way through movie sets, factories, mansions, and military bases. The killer doll at the heart of the Child’s Play franchise has been revived again and again, to varying degrees of success, for over 30 years now. Now, he’s taking a stab at something entirely new: television.
Chucky stands with one fabric-clad foot in each of the worlds the franchise has thus far created. One half is semi-straight-faced horror, exemplified by melodramatic family arguments and flashback sequences exploring serial killer Charles Lee Ray’s pre-doll childhood. The other is more playfully self-aware, piling on the sleazy camp that typifies some of the later Child’s Play sequels. By the end of the four episodes (of eight) available for review, the series has traipsed towards the latter and is better for it.
This installment follows Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), a thirteen-year-old in Hackensack, New Jersey, who incorporates a Chucky doll he found at a yard sale into his goth-geek aesthetic. Jake is a sensitive kid who absorbs the world around him and, more often than not, feels hurt by what he takes in.
His cousin, Junior (Teo Briones), is treated like the star of the family. His dad (Devon Sawa, who also plays his uncle) is a mean drunk who takes a hammer to Jake’s weird art, unable to cope with the idea of having a gay son. Jake is bullied at school, too, so when his new doll suddenly comes to life and starts plotting bloody revenge, it’s no surprise that he is willing to play along.
Some elements of Chucky don’t work. The acting, especially in the first episode, is lacking across the board. The foundational myth of Charles Lee Ray, revealed here for the first time, is at once predictable (with shades of both Halloween and Dexter) and mostly corny. The series also relies on editorial flourishes, like split screens and generic “olden-days” filters, that distract more than they enhance.
Yet when the series finally kicks into gear, Chucky possesses the exuberant, mean-spirited magic of the best of the franchise. The teen characters, who host true-crime podcasts and blast Billie Eilish songs, are smart and wounded under their veneer of cruelty. Mean, rich girl Lexy Cross (Alyvia Alyn Lind) seems to have stepped straight out of Riverdale, and I mean that as a compliment. She’s precocious, unbearable, and iconic all at once, misappropriating Heathers quotes and singing “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” as a lullaby.
Gen Z is the perfect group upon which to unleash a killer doll with a knack for mayhem. The teens of Chucky films past have been largely hero-types, but these kids were born into a world of stark class division and constant global crisis. They aren’t easily phased by destruction. In one telling scene, Lexy is appalled that her little sister switched their TV to a morbid news station. What was the elementary school kid watching before that? HBO’s unrated hit Westworld, naturally.
There are trademarks of the Child’s Play franchise here as entertaining as the flat notes are disappointing. In Chucky’s world, people are hilariously breakable — easily punctured and prone to dying in all sorts of epic ways. This series is no exception, and the first four episodes include a few memorable, hilarious kills.
Chucky himself is more forthright than usual, too, narrating large portions of episodes and giving Jake questionable but sincere advice. The Child’s Play franchise has long been queer-coded, and this show is no exception. Aside from the overall camp sensibility and Jake’s own emergent sexuality, Chucky also draws parallels between his homicidal lifestyle and Jake’s queer coming-of-age. You never forget your first time, he says, before talking about the pleasure of the kill.
The success of each particular Chucky story depends on the brutality and flair of the climax. The two most recent movie entries in the ongoing franchise, Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky, both have slow starts but culminate in admirably intense crescendos. Chucky seems poised to do the same, ramping up around mid-season with an episode that shuffles key characters’ allegiances. Promotional materials have already revealed that fan-favorites Andy (Alex Vincent) and Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) will make appearances before the season’s end.
This darkly funny, sometimes cheesy series may not win over newcomers to the Child’s Play universe on its own. With its continuing lore, it isn’t necessarily meant to. But Chucky breaks new ground for an ever-creative franchise, making the series a worthy watch for existing fans of the red-headed doll who promises to be our friend to the end.
Chucky premieres on Syfy and the USA Network on October 12th.