Truth be told, there is no real reason for another iteration of the “Child’s Play” universe after a slew of films that range widely in quality from entertaining to ridiculous, dating back to the original 1988 offering. But USA and Syfy’s new series, “Chucky,” is actually pretty solid.
Much of that is because Don Mancini, the co-writer and mastermind behind the original “Child’s Play,” is the creator and showrunner of the new series. He also wrote and directed a few episodes, which is obvious from his level of detail and empathy for this world, particularly protagonist Jake Webber (Zachary Arthur) and supervillain Chucky, beginning with the very first episode.
As is the case with “Carrie,” “It,” the “Fear Street” films and many other horror narratives, at the center of “Chucky” is a shy, endearing young person who struggles with being seen as different or, worse yet, an outcast. Jake is quiet, totally into true-crime podcasts and gay. He also cradles a freakish doll around with him virtually everywhere he goes and has no friends. And yet, thanks to Arthur’s vulnerable performance, Jake is instantly identifiable to any audience member who has ever felt unheard or misunderstood.
Any viewer who’s feverishly kept up with the “Child’s Play” lore will immediately recognize Chucky (once again voiced by Brad Dourif, who originated the role) by his iconic, plastic sneer when he is trying to blend in as an innocent toy, and much creepier growl when he’s animated and, by default, murderous.
In effective black-and-white flashbacks, this new “Chucky” retreads the doll’s heinous origins, well known to most fans, as a soul previously inhabited by a wanted serial killer named Charles Lee Ray and transmitted by voodoo into a toy so that he could continue to murder people unscathed. But early in the series, the narrative suggests that Chucky’s influence could lead to Jake’s own bloody origin story, considering that he is routinely bullied and has a growing list of people against whom he could potentially retaliate.
There’s Lucas, his homophobic, abusive widower father; Junior (Teo Briones), his mean cousin and classmate; Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind), Junior’s even meaner and snobbier girlfriend; and pretty much his entire school that thinks of him as a either a punchline or a punching bag. Heeding the maniacal advice of a doll might be seductive for a budding sociopath, but it doesn’t really feel authentic for a character like Jake who is inherently good. Plus, we really don’t need to see another image of a young white male murdering people because he thinks the world did him wrong.
Fortunately, in the first four episodes made available to press, “Chucky” changes courses before Jake totally breaks bad. Still, murders of people in and around Jake’s circle abound — and Chucky is responsible for every last one. Unlike the films that build whole narratives around adult characters, the series so far focuses on the young characters and follows Jake as he tries to stop Chucky from continuing to kill on his own.
On the one hand, he wants to spare more bloodshed. On the other, the police are starting to think that he is behind the latest crime spree. Because obviously no one would believe him if he says a doll did it.
Mancini, who like Jake is openly gay, and his writing team manage to do a lot of things in the newly episodic format that perhaps a tight film structure, or even a franchise, couldn’t allow. 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. 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” debuts on USA and Syfy on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.