Ask yourself: what do you want from a Chucky TV show?
If you want believable dialogue, compelling characters, and a coherent narrative, this may not be the place. If you want a demon doll who creatively and excessively kills a host of human characters in ways that will make you laugh, groan, and be grossed out, then yes: Chucky delivers.
Not that these two things can’t exist simultaneously, but when it comes to USA and Syfy’s campy horror series based on the enduring franchise, you need to opt-in to the good-time gory fun with these caveats in mind.
Chucky comes from Child’s Play mastermind Don Mancini, and takes place in Hackensack, New Jersey. The prolific killer doll is matched with a new friend quickly: Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), an artsy middle-school outsider who likes making freaky doll sculptures, picks Chucky up at a yard sale. Jake can’t quite manage to pull Chucky’s head off to add him to his collection, though, and pretty quickly comes to understand that this Good Guy doll is actually a Bad Guy and a vicious killer—one who wants to ostensibly “help” Jake through some difficulties at school and at home, whether Jake wants him to or not.
When a TV show is a revival or continuation of an established franchise, a review can go one of two ways: It can be covered by someone with a deep knowledge of the source material, or someone who knows next to nothing. For Chucky, it is I, the person who knows the doll’s demonic nature from pop culture, but who has never seen the Child’s Play movies. As someone who’s also not usually into horror, I was nevertheless charmed by the idea of the series and wanted my review to serve as a litmus test: Does this show work on its own, or is it only for die-hard fans?
There are undoubtedly plenty of references and connections I’m missing in the first four episodes available to review (out of eight total), but as a n00b, Chucky did a good job of introducing me to what I needed to know. Because really, you don’t need to know much. This is a new setting with almost all new characters, Chucky (once again voiced by Brad Dourif) is a psychopathic murderer, and thus chaos ensues. But the show also does something interesting alongside the regular doll antics in that it explores the early years of Chucky’s human inhabitant, Charles Lee Ray, as a quasi-origin tale. Unlike so many serial killer stories that try to somehow explain away or absolve their villain’s actions by showing early childhood trauma, Chucky’s flashback story embraces an inherent evil and runs with it. It’s deliciously messed up.
Frankly, this Chucky series makes plenty of good decisions when it comes to tone, walking a very fine line between self-awareness and self-consciousness in its storytelling—it knows what it is, but it’s not meta. The show is fully ridiculous, but it’s not trying to be anything else. It’s also creepy and gory and a slashin’ good time. I would love to describe all of Chucky’s horrifically creative kills, but each one is worth uniquely experiencing on its own.
For all of its blood-soaked mayhem, though, it’s also worth noting that Chucky is surprisingly warm in terms of its atmosphere and direction. It makes some interesting stylistic choices that don’t always land, but it’s a little different and off-kilter enough that it works for the story its telling. And most of all, the series fully embraces its seasonal fall setting, with rather gorgeous establishing shots of the leaves changing color under overcast skies. Could Chucky kill just as effectively at a beach resort in the summer? Of course! But that embrace of the late fall and early winter doldrums sets this spooky table perfectly.
I haven’t said much about the characters outside of Chucky, but this is where the series falters the most and leans into tropes. There’s no depth here, and logic has left the building. Close friends or family members may be brutally killed, but everyone shrugs and moves past it. The 13-year-old stars dress and act like they’re in their 30s, teachers trade F-bombs with the kids, and the plotting is exceptionally thin. But this is also a horror series about a doll who is now canonically a 67-year-old man with a kid of his own who just wants to murder all day, enlist some children into his army of the damned, and occasionally do a little standup. Again, what do you want from it?
From Devon Sawa playing twin brothers to Fiona Dourif as a teacher who “gets it,” to Alyvia Alyn Lind, Teo Briones, and Björgvin Arnarson as the popular kids Lexy, Junior, and Devon who torment Jake, everyone in the cast certainly understands the assignment, and does their best with the scripting. (Franchise veteran Jennifer Tilly is also expected to appear, but was not in the episodes that were screened). The show plays everything straight, which also helps the comedy when Chucky becomes fully unhinged.
Ultimately, the Chucky series is accessible for those starting out with the franchise and (I am assured) those who have enjoyed Chucky’s journey and various incarnations over the years. CG may smooth out some of his movements and facial expressions more than in the past, but the practical puppetry remains the star. Every time an unassuming kid or parent holds this bizarrely large doll, the tension begins to build. Will he wink, flip a bird, or grin before reaching for his knife? Or will he just remain calm and quiet, except for the occasional declaration: “Hi, I’m Chucky. Your friend till the end…”
Chucky premieres Tuesday, October 12th on USA and Syfy, with new episodes released weekly on both channels.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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