A.I

The Chucky TV show is a red-blooded return to weirdness

It’s easy to forget how good the Child’s Play movies are. Don Mancini’s film franchise about Chucky, a murderous red-haired doll possessed by the spirit of a dead murderer, rides the line between campy comedy and gory slasher, and it’s often managed that perfectly since its 1988 debut. For people with a significant fondness for goofiness and gore in equal measure, few series are as adept at delivering both as Child’s Play and its six sequels. After years of fun at the movies, Chucky is launching his latest murderous misadventure as the star of a TV show for Syfy and the USA Network, and he hasn’t lost any of his talent for killing or comedy on the way to the small screen.

The new series, which is just called Chucky, is a direct sequel to the previous seven movies. Mancini also returns to the franchise as the series’ creator, writer, and showrunner — and thank God, because 2019’s disastrous reboot Child’s Play was a crucial reminder that nothing about Chucky works without Mancini.

Unlike some of the more recent films, which followed the doll and sometimes his bride Tiffany as the main characters, Chucky follows queer middle-schooler Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), who lives in the small New Jersey town of Hackensack. That just happens to be the birthplace of Charles Lee Ray, the serial killer whose soul inhabits the Good Guys doll known as Chucky.

Photo: Steve Wilkie/USA Network

The switch from child protagonist to a young teenager in the lead role is a huge reason the show works so well. At its core, Chucky is a teen dramedy about the difficulties of school, bullies, first crushes, and even coming to terms with sexuality — something Mancini, an openly gay man, handles far more deftly than many recent teen shows.

The first few episodes are mostly about introducing the cast, including Jake’s classmates and Hackensack’s adults. There’s Jake’s new friend and first crush, Devon (Björgvin Arnarson), a true-crime podcaster with a paranoid-cop mother; his overworked but good-at-everything cousin Junior (Teo Briones); and Junior’s girlfriend Lexi — played by Alyvia Alyn Lind, who’s outstanding at being almost as gleefully cruel as Chucky in the first few episodes. On their own, the show’s characters would be compelling enough to entertain fans for a 10-episode Netflix show, but the twist arrives when Jake happens to buy Chucky at a yard sale, and the doll reveals his bloodthirst.

The addition of a sentient murder-doll, particularly one as foul-mouthed and gleeful as Chucky, lets Mancini ratchet up the emotions into pure melodrama, making all the usual teen-angst issues a little more fun. The show’s bully is meaner than most. (Instead of calling Jake names, she dresses up as his dead parent for Halloween.) Jake is stranger than the average teen-movie outcast — he makes sculptures out of dismembered doll parts, which seems to be his only hobby. And Hackensack’s adults are comedically incompetent. On top of that, in a fantastic bit that feels lifted directly from a 1990s sitcom, Chucky gets one ridiculously over-the-top murder per episode — though by the end of episode 4 (the last one made available to critics in advance), it seems like his devious antics are about to take center stage in the story.

One of the secret ingredients that helped make Chucky so famous, and made his movies so enjoyable over the last five decades, is the voice behind him: Brad Dourif, who returns for this series. Dourif (Grimnir Wormtongue in Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings movies) has provided the doll’s voice since the first movie, and he’s exceptional at capturing the perfect blend of venom and comedic timing. The idea of an evil doll might not be hard to sell, but the gleeful nastiness Dourif delivers in every line made Chucky an icon, and it works every bit as well in series format.

On top of making the show ridiculously fun to watch, the teen-drama setup also lets it fit neatly into the Child’s Play series as both a perfect onboarding point for new fans, and a breath of fresh air for series veterans. Chucky’s films haven’t had a young protagonist since the first three movies, which makes this almost feel like a return to form, but the show also provides enough backstory that the other films don’t feel like necessary viewing. In fact, the show even weaves in some backstory on Charles Lee Ray, via a sitcom-y B-plot that feels like a Young Sheldon remake starring Hannibal Lecter.

Chucky shows his true colors, Zackary Arthur looks kinda bored

Photo: Steve Wilkie/USA Network

Through the first four episodes, Mancini’s most impressive feat is balancing Chucky between serious topics and ridiculousness, while always keeping it fun to watch. The show swaps comfortably between complicated teen romances, questions about how trauma affects young adults, and Chucky’s hilariously gory murders. Chucky himself handles difficult topics, too. He’s already proven himself a vocal ally of Jake’s queerness, echoing back to the child he and Tiffany had in Seed of Chucky — a kid with a male and female side, which Chucky chooses to describe as “genderfluid.” Chucky is even willing to back up his allyship with action, though it’s characteristically murderous action.

Of course, it’s hilarious for Chucky to declare himself “not a monster” for supporting queerness when he’s a monster for so many other reasons. But the doll uses Jake’s queerness to make him feel isolated, even from the largely supportive people around him. It’s a fascinating avenue for the show to explore in its first few episodes, and an unusual one for either a teen dramedy or slasher movies about killer dolls. It’s all appealingly silly, and for longtime fans of the franchise, this show is sure to kill.

Chucky’s eight-episode first season premieres on Syfy and USA Network on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.

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