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USA and Syfy's Chucky is good-time gory fun

  • "Ask yourself: what do you want from a Chucky TV show?" asks Allison Keene of the reboot from Child's Play mastermind Don Mancini. "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....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?"


    • Chucky delivers on the basic premise of a doll that kills people: "There are hints that Syfy and USA’s Chucky might eventually get into the twisty and bizarrely meta world of the extended Child’s Play universe (I truly didn’t know that a movie called Cult of Chucky existed). But through the four episodes sent to critics, it tends, agreeably, toward the simple side of things," says Daniel Fienberg. "Hailing from Don Mancini, writer or co-writer of the entire franchise and the director of the last three installments, Chucky hits the small screen in somewhat padded form. It’s easy to focus on clumsy dialogue and a slew of flat characterizations, but if all you require in a Child’s Play TV show is the basics — a doll who kills people, occasionally creatively — then it delivers on that promise, also offering tiny bursts of nonmandatory inspiration."
    • Chucky handles coming-of-age drama better than most teen shows while returning the franchise to the films’ violent weirdness: "It’s easy to forget how good the Child’s Play movies are," says Austen Goslin. "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...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."
    • Chucky isn't interested in bringing anything new to the table: "Its launch follows just two years after a surprisingly smart big tech big-screen remake that found something to say about nature v nurture and corporate cynicism in the moments when an evil doll wasn’t trying to kill Aubrey Plaza," says Benjamin Lee. "But Mancini’s rehash of his own material isn’t really interested in bringing anything new to the table, replaying beats that have been replayed to death, a curiously unambitious series that already feels like a relic, like it was made in the 90s as a desperate cash-in and quickly forgotten about. The set-up is familiar to anyone who’s seen a Child’s Play movie before: a misunderstood kid (arty outcast Jake, played by Zackary Arthur) comes across a murderous Chucky doll who proceeds to then destroy the world around him. There’s only one vaguely interesting formula tweak here and it’s Mancini’s decision to make his protagonist queer and then to handle it with a refreshingly casual sensitivity. Gay characters are almost invisible within mainstream horror and young gay teens are similarly absent from pretty much all genres so there’s something kinda radical about the show’s backgrounded queerness, without the need to smugly back-pat for how woke it’s being (there’s even time for a sweet-natured romantic subplot and an amusingly odd discussion that proves that while Chucky is a violent mass-murderer, he is not a homophobe! Chucky said gay rights!). Jake is gay and it’s accepted, and unlike, say, the obnoxious characters in HBO Max’s eye-rollingly 'of the moment' teen drama Generation, it just is. But Mancini’s writing only ever works on the most basic of basic levels, something that was just about fine for a throwaway sleepover slash-em-up, but in trying to etch out archetypes (the bitch, the jock, the geek etc) with even shallow end of the pool depth, he drowns fast."
    • The first season of Chucky plays like the beat sheet of a traditional Child’s Play installment: "This means you can expect the gory kills to be parcelled out conservatively," says Josh Korngut. "It leaves more room for storytelling and character-building between the acts of impressive violence. This formula has actively worked against other horror series with similar algorithms. MTV’s Scream produced its fair share of grisly murders across a precarious three-season run, however, its downtime often left much to be desired. Mancini’s Chucky avoids this kiss of death by delivering strong characters who you can root for from that first episode Billie Eilish needle drop."
    • Creator Don Mancini succeeds in juggling a handful of ambitions for Chucky: "He’s telling a new story for audiences who might not have grown up with the titular character, while giving longtime fans an origin story they’ve yet to see play out," says Kristen Lopez. "Each episode is balanced between Jake’s story with Chucky and flashbacks to 1960s Hackensack, New Jersey where a young Charles Lee Ray (David Kohlsmith) became the serial killer we now fear (you know, pre-doll). Depending on the episode, there’s a desire to stay in one story over the other, but the general consensus is that every entry is killer good fun. The series’ tone feels akin to Creepshow, wherein the Hackensack of today is one where people are generally phony, hiding their cruelty and hatred behind the facades of their houses. This inner torment is manifesting outward through Hackensack’s high crime rate, dutifully recounted in a podcast hosted by high school detective Devon Evans (Bjorgvin Arnarson). Jake is a particular punching bag for almost everyone in his orbit, from his drunken father to the school tyrant, Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind). So it’s understandable why he’d be the perfect companion for Chucky, with the doll trying his best to take Jake under his wing and teach him the finer points of killing."
    • Mancini and his writing team manage to do a lot of things in Chucky that wouldn't be possible in the movie format: "We get a more fleshed out, deeply human protagonist, the return of a killer doll with the conscious of a deranged, manipulative man, and a more expansive look at a landscape that gave birth to both good and evil," says Candice Frederick. "It might also be the most diverse world Mancini has created for the Child’s Play franchise so far, with Jake being queer as well as the addition of his one ally, a Black kid named Devon (Bjorgvin Arnarson). For these reasons alone, this new Chucky is a richer, more personal experience — and yet as frightening as ever."
    • Chucky’s profane gusto makes the TV reboot more entertaining: "Chucky is a foul-mouthed little bastard with a devious sense of humor, and the show’s best moments allow him to strike out on his own, as with a Halloween-night prank that he pulls on an unsuspecting mother who unwisely forgets to check her treat for a razor-blade trick," says Nick Schager. "While the main characters’ dynamics are straightforward, mostly revolving around issues of bullying and the resultant desire for brutal payback, Mancini makes sure to energize each episode with a bit of gruesomeness and absurdity, never losing sight of the fact that the show’s primary appeal is Chucky and the inventive carnage he creates in communities that are vulnerable precisely because they can’t comprehend a plaything being a legitimate threat."
    • Chucky feels like a supporting player in Chucky: "That's not exactly out of character – he remained elusive in the first movie. But he also feels a bit directionless here," says Chris Evangelista. "It's hard to get a read on the character in the show because the first four episodes are designed to set things up. As a result, there are long stretches where Chucky is literally sitting around, waiting until he's needed to start slicing and dicing. Along the way, Chucky also tries to fill in the backstory of Chucky's human form, serial killer Charles Lee Ray, going all the way back to his childhood. More background into Ray's character was presented in Curse of Chucky, but to continually fill in that backstory often feels like a mistake, and homages to "Halloween" that present the young Charles Lee Ray as a force of evil even in childhood don't add much. If anything, giving Chucky more of a history robs him of some of his power."
    • Chucky retains all of the character’s penchant for grotesque kills and juvenile, acidic humor: "Given that it’s a show whose primary draw is watching a sadistic children’s toy stalk and kill people, the series assembles a roster of paper-thin characters ripe for the offing. Jake’s antagonist in the early episodes is Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), the kind of cartoonish teenage tormentor so easy to hate," says Alex McLevy. "It’s to the series’ credit that it actually makes the case for why even terrible people don’t deserve to die, while also allowing for the thorny morality of endorsing the right to wish they would...Strip away all the enjoyably gory bloodshed, though, and Chucky occasionally struggles to fill the time between its title character’s favorite activity. There are ongoing flashbacks to Charles Lee Ray’s youth, meant to establish his backstory and show how he became a maniac eager to mentor a budding young potential killer like Jake, and while they can be entertaining, they rarely feel necessary. Similarly, the major beats of the story tend to be telegraphed far in advance, so even when Chucky fails to execute an intended victim, it’s not really a surprise. And throughout, the show’s tone wavers, walking an unsteady line between the surreal camp of the mid-period films like Bride Of Chucky—there’s a school talent show that doesn’t begin to approach the realm of believable—and the clever, grounded smarts of the more recent entries. When the oddball mix of sensibilities works, Chucky can be daffily entertaining."
    • Chucky doesn't have a lot going for it, other than the doll itself: "Let’s start with the positive," says Alyse Wax. "The Chucky puppet is beautiful. I am glad they didn’t try to make it digital. Chucky should always be a real doll. Brad Dourif returns to voice Chucky and he hasn’t lost a step. I get damn near giddy whenever Chucky speaks, because Dourif’s voice, his tone, his speaking style, is so iconic that he just is Chucky. Dourif returning makes the show. Unfortunately, there isn’t a lot else to like. Admittedly, the episodes got better as they went along (I watched the first three), but the first episode was difficult because you know who Chucky is, and you are just waiting for him to start talking, start creeping, start killing. He doesn’t do any of that until the very end of the first episode, which was frustrating as hell. Subsequent episodes, as Chucky becomes the Chucky we all know and love, become more enjoyable — here is something adorable about watching him play video games with a young autistic girl, then invite her to come with him to kill her sister."
    • Chucky reveals how he would kill Michael Myers, Hannibal Lecter, Freddy Krueger and Annabelle
    • Mother-daughter duo Barbara Alyn Woods and Alyvia Alyn Lind on playing mother and daughter on Chucky: “It was mostly fun for me because we’re not just mother and daughter, we’re horrible to each other,” Alyvia admitted. “She hates me and I hate her 10 times more in the show, and it’s so much fun to get to play that storyline. We had so much fun with it. She is just such a horrible mayor mother.”
    • Brad Dourif says voicing Chucky is like muscle memory at this point: "I’ve done it so much,” he says, adding that there are some things that still remain true about Chucky. “Number one, he is terrified of oblivion. He does not want to die and is very serious about that. Second is he loves his job, which is killing people.... Once I have my handle on those two things, it works.”  
    • As a gay man, creator Don Mancini says Chucky allows him to explores deeply personal themes he couldn't delve into when Child’s Play hit theaters 33 years ago. “I wanted to create a final boy instead of a final girl,” the 58-year-old Mancini tells The New York Times. “It’s not something I ever saw when I was Jake’s age. Fortunately the world has turned.” Mancini says he knows that Jake’s sexuality might rattle some horror fans. It would be, he said, as “if Frankenstein came out as bi.” Mancini says he has received death threats from a fan who was upset to learn he was gay. “But I’m in a position to do it, so why not?” he says. “The idea of causing some people’s heads to explode was catnip to me.”

    TOPICS: Chucky, Syfy, USA Network, Alyvia Alyn Lind, Barbara Alyn Woods, Brad Dourif, Don Mancini