Justin Cook reviews the series premiere of Chucky from New York Comic Con…
As lights dimmed on New York Comic Con’s Empire Stage and Brad Dourif’s coarse, crude voice rang out across the crowded auditorium to introduce the first episode of Chucky, it was hard not to reflect on the franchise’s legacy — namely, how fans are still showing up for Chucky over 33 years after his debut. While often overlooked, the fact remains that Child’s Play has sneakily become one of the most enduring horror franchises ever. If not, the most.
Some horror franchises have longevity (Halloween) and some have continuity (The Conjuring), but few have both. With seven movies (eight including 2019’s red-headed stepchild series reboot) and a cast of actors that have been popping up in the series since 1988, one could even call Child’s Play the Boyhood of horror. It’s a series about compounded childhood trauma and predatory marketing practices employed on children to sell toys, that is, rightfully, only tangentially concerned with either of those things when they serve the series’ central purpose: to keep finding inventive new ways for a doll to come to life and kill people.
It’s frighteningly easy to discount the Child’s Play franchise because it’s one of the few that hasn’t rewritten its lore time and time again to reach a new audience (2019’s aforementioned reboot notwithstanding). It has a stringent devotion to reminding you of its history, while also looking to expand and evolve it, which admittedly is the most exciting part of the new Syfy show’s pilot.
Chucky’s premiere episode, “Death by Misadventure,” is deeply flawed; the scripting can be contrived, the jokes can be tone-deaf, and the performances can be groan-worthy. But at the same time, it sure is fun. And fun has always gone a long way for this franchise.
Not only does the pilot episode cover a lot of ground in terms of introducing us to our central ensemble and setting of Hackensack, NJ, it also cues the show up nicely to get bigger and weirder as it digs deeper into unexplored aspects of the franchise’s mythology. Even if not groundbreaking, must-watch TV, its healthy dose of camp and lack of awareness of when its antics veer from fun to distasteful makes it a real live-wire of a show. A throwback to an era of horror from which Chucky remains as one of the few remaining survivors.
In this iteration, we follow middle-schooler and aspiring artist Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), a character for which creator Don Mancini drew inspiration from his own life and personal journey growing up queer. The series wastes no time connecting the dots between Jake and the show’s titular killer; at the very beginning of the pilot, the teenager stumbles upon the Good Guy doll at a garage sale, and being fascinated with using doll pieces in his art, he haggles for a better price and takes it home.
Jake has all the hallmarks of a misunderstood adolescent: a deadbeat, alcoholic father, a friend who he may have feelings for, an unkind, rivalrous relationship with his cousin, and an overachieving classmate who wants to see him humiliated. Not before long, the Good Guy doll starts wreaking havoc on the town of Hackensack, as we see a budding tension begin to arise between Jake and the doll.
The episode finds some genuinely colorful, amusing set-pieces and situations to have Chucky play around in, including a science class frog dissection and an open-mic at a talent show, indicating that Mancini and his writing staff still have some fresh ideas up their sleeves.
In recent years, an unfortunate trend has formed when traditionally cinematic franchises make the jump to TV. Instead of playing by the rules and format of TV, showrunners use a longer runtime as a means of padding out its narrative. Everything from Marvel’s Netflix shows to USA’s The Purge has been guilty of stretching a few solid hours worth of story thin, introducing unnecessary B-plots, cloying side characters (and their extraneous backstories), and just enough action and intrigue to keep viewers coming back for more. This is all to say that Syfy’s Chucky could easily fall into this same trap, being the latest movie franchise to make a leap to the silver screen, but if the first episode is any indication, this reviewer would like to believe it won’t.
Child’s Play ride-or-dies should enjoy themselves with this pilot, and Mancini and Jennifer Tilly’s post-screening conversation indicates that the show will feature cameos, references, and lore galore for fans to salivate over in weeks to come. Even the premiere features a voice cameo from franchise veteran Alex Vincent, who has already been confirmed to be reprising his role as Andy Barclay, and flashbacks to the human form of Chucky, Charles Lee Ray, as a child, with the season uncovering his mysterious origins. Chucky, thus far, is messy, mean, malformed, horror fun, which largely keeps the DNA of the movies intact (F-bombs, violence, and all).
For all of Mancini’s efforts to modernize Chucky or introduce him to a new generation, for now, “Death by Misadventure” just simply proves that he still has a reason to exist, even as the years continue to add up. Which is enough.