Seven movies deep, Don Mancini’s Chucky series remains arguably the most cohesive of the horror franchises. Now it continues in TV series form, with an eight-episode inaugural season. Between the new story and ideas introduced to an already rich history, a backstory, and franchise veterans teased to arrive in the wake of Cult of Chucky, the ambitions of “Chucky” feel too grand to contain in a single review. That means we’re tackling this series one episode at a time, starting with the premiere. “Death by Misadventure” kicks this off with an introduction to Chucky’s hometown, laying the groundwork for the season with callbacks and a new unlucky playmate for the killer Good Guy doll.
What Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur) lacks in friends and social skills he makes up for in artistry. Jake’s ability to create sculptures from doll parts might impress an art critic, but less so his widowed dad (Devon Sawa), an alcoholic uneasy with his son’s interests. Jake’s hobby leads him to find and acquiring a vintage Good Guy doll. Naturally, Chucky (voiced by Brad Dourif) makes himself at home in Jake’s life and gets the murder party started.
Created and written by Don Mancini, the series premiere settles into Jake’s small-town world and his struggles navigating both home and middle school. The fourteen-year-old gets bullied at every pass, the worst coming from drunk dad and queen mean girl, Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind). It’s Jake’s defining trait as an outcast that Chucky latches on to, presenting a toggling scenario where he can entice the teen into becoming a killer or taking the fall. In familiar style, it takes a while for Chucky to make his presence known to the characters. First, it’s subtle blinks or things getting misplaced. By the episode’s end, he’s out of hiding and taking control of Jake’s life.
Unlike Andy Barclay (Alex Vincent), who does make a brief vocal appearance via phone call in this episode, Jake is older and more world-weary. He’s dealt with the loss of his mother, become friendless, and browbeaten. “Death by Misadventure” sets up the suggestion that Chucky’s ability to remove those from Jake’s life that cause him the most harm could influence the teen in dark ways. This aspect makes for a fascinating approach; “Chucky” seems interested in exploring the nurture versus nature facet of serial killers. It’s bolstered by the revelation that Hackensack happens to be Chucky’s hometown. Quick snippets of Charles Lee Ray’s childhood set up a series-long mystery as to what personal business drew the pint-sized killer back home.
The “Chucky” premiere effectively draws you in but hasn’t quite found its footing yet. Chucky’s personal business and continued Cult of Chucky plot threads pop up in quick flashes; but it’s Jake’s story that takes prominence. Arthur’s performance as Jake makes for an empathetic lead, but he’s solely a victim so far. It doesn’t help that he’s surrounded by a slew of unlikeable characters, from his uncaring cousin Junior (Teo Briones) to the ruthless Lexy and beyond. Sawa also plays Jake’s uncle in a dual role, but the premiere doesn’t give much of a read on him outside of affluence. That Jake’s lower-income household seems like an anomaly for the neighborhood makes for a bizarre version of Middle School that comes across far too mature for its age group. “Chucky” embraces its R-rating, which is great for fans but strange for the setting.
While the introductory premiere gets the series off to a somewhat strange start, it feels good to have Chucky -and Dourif- back in practical effect-driven form. How it’ll juggle franchise continuity with a brand new storyline in serialized form remains to be seen, but Mancini’s unwavering commitment to the killer Good Guy doll instills confidence.
“Chucky” premieres on USA and Syfy on Oct. 12 at 10 p.m. ET.