Syfy’s ‘Chucky’ Series Shifts Subtext to Text

The wild world of Child’s Play (1988) has gone in some truly fascinating directions over the decades. Depending on the entry, most of the franchise has been either created in partnership with or under the helm of writer, producer, and director Don Mancini. Originally intended as a scathing indictment of the consumer culture of the ‘80s, the first film ended up being an extra gory send-off of the campy “evil doll” trope. Sequels followed much the same format until Bride of Chucky (1998) reimagined the premise as a pop culture savvy horror-comedy classic.

Keeping a surprising level of continuity with the prior films (but disregarding the Child’s Play (2019) reboot), the new SYFY series serves as a direct sequel for Cult of Chucky (2017). Playing very much within the world set forward back in 1988 and full of callbacks to prior films, the eight-episode TV series succeeds by introducing a new set of characters – and a surprisingly empowering queer love story at its center.

Courtesy of SYFY

The Child’s Play franchise has dealt with queerness many times before, with the out Mancini pushing boundaries in prior entries by casting the late Alexis Arquette, introducing gay supporting protagonist David (Gordon Michael Woolvett) in Bride of Chucky, and giving Chucky and Tiffany a nonbinary child in Seed of Chucky (2004). Yet, not until the new series have the underlying queer themes of prior entries emerged as themes so strong that they help tie the franchise together.

The TV show revolves around a new protagonist in Jake Wheeler (Zackary Arthur), a creative gay teenager with macabre interests who lives with an alcoholic father (played by Devon Sawa in one of the two roles he takes on for the series). Obsessed with creating bizarre sculptures out of discarded dolls, Jake hits the jackpot when he finds a Good Guy doll at a garage sale.

At a family dinner, his uncle and cousin flaunt their normalcy and good fortune in life, instigating an argument that ends with them leaving Jake alone with his father. When his father gets in his face about provoking them, Jake snaps that his father doesn’t actually care what they think, just that they know he’s gay. His father hits him and destroys his doll sculptures.

That inauspicious Good Guy doll has been lurking at the sidelines, and he takes the first opportunity he sees to murder Jake’s dad, turning his sites then on Lexi, who bullies Jake at school. Jake struggles with his desire for vengeance on those that have wronged him, but ultimately realizes that Chucky is out of control, and he teams up with his crush to stop the murderous doll.

Chucky Episode 5
Courtesy of SYFY

Through flashbacks we see that Chucky gravitates toward vulnerable young people even in his pre-doll life, befriending a young boy at an orphanage and showing him the rotting corpse of a man he murdered before gifting the child with the man’s severed hand. We’ve seen Chucky manipulate children before, but not until now does it become clear that this has been a staple in his behavior well before he took on the unassuming appearance of a child’s toy. Leveraging his apparent lack of judgment toward Jake’s sexuality against him, Chucky holds his hands out with a patient smile, noting that “I’m not a monster, Jake.”

In contrast to Jake’s troubled life as a gay kid dealing with rampant homophobia, his crush Devon (Björgvin Arnarson) is comparatively well-adjusted. He also has an overriding interest in true crime, even hosting his own podcast about graphic and brutal subject matter that draws them together. He lives with his mother, who expresses sincere acceptance when he asks her how he can know if he really likes someone. Taking the edge off of the conversation, she asks him if he’s referring to Jake. In one of the sweetest moments of the series, she lets him know that he is loved regardless of who he loves.

Jake is miserable, but he comes to life when Devon enters the room. At first, desperately trying to hide his crush, he is delighted when he realizes it is reciprocated. When the two kiss at the end of a very long day, he laughs nervously and rides quickly away. The two of them choosing to be together in an open and honest way quickly becomes one of the major themes of the series.

Chucky Tiffany Valentine
Courtesy of SYFY

Meanwhile, Tiffany (Jennifer Tilly) is portrayed as bisexual as she hooks up with a woman in a flashback only to team up with the pre-doll Charles Lee Ray to stab her to death, granting us a queer villain to counteract our queer heroes. In the present day, Tiffany has teamed up with a Chucky-possessed Nica Pierce (portrayed by Chucky voice actor Brad Dourif’s daughter Fiona Dourif of Cult of Chucky fame). The two of them have a rowdy sex scene while two of their victims, one dead and one still alive, serve as an audience.

Fiona Dourif impersonating Charles Lee Ray provides a moment of twisted brilliance and uncomfortable humor as she waves a knife around and berates Tiffany, only to be horrified when she awakens and realizes that Chucky can possess her at will. While Nica is a victim of Chucky’s evil, the series has long since established that Tiffany is a co-conspirator who meets his brutality at every turn, steering clear of any “sympathetic woman” stereotypes and leaning into Tiffany as a gleefully murderous equal to Chucky.

Allowing the once-subtextual to fully come to life and offering deeper commentary beyond the pop culture references of previous entries, the Chucky TV series might be the best chapter in the Child’s Play canon so far. Flawed heroes, fascinating villains, and a creepy doll all work to lay the interesting groundwork, but that’s not all that the story offers. By embracing its campy premise and giving us complicated characters that defy easy moral conclusions, Chucky has lived up to the potential that was first suggested all the way back in 1988.

Sara is a horror writer, a critic, a reporter, a filmmaker, and an artist that has written for many publications and platforms. She is the co-host of the Bitches On Comics podcast as well as the co-founder and editor of the Decoded Pride anthology which focuses on works of queer speculative fiction.