No franchise is blowing itself up like Chucky — and that’s a good thing

The first season of Chucky started out plausibly stand-alone. Though the concept and classic design of a killer doll voiced by Brad Dourif remains, the character is dropped into a new setting with a new cast. Bullied gay middle-schooler Jake (Zackary Arthur) is the one to find the vintage doll at a garage sale, and chaos ensues. It feels like a soft reboot of sorts, carefully weaving in characters and other plot points from the prior seven films around the edges of Jake’s story.

Having laid the groundwork, however, the show’s recently concluded second season takes a much more direct approach to the franchise’s own history, choosing to address three decades of continuity and contrasting tones head-on. And it coalesces into one of 2022’s most fascinating TV shows — a whirlwind meta horror-comedy that unpacks the franchise’s history while exploring our relationships to our parents with surprising maturity and nuance.

Still overseen by creator, writer, and sometimes-director Don Mancini, the series has proven shockingly malleable, constantly evolving to meet new cultural moments as its birth in the ’80s slasher boom gave way to something more self-aware and comedic. Its current form as a TV show is as emblematic of the era as any of the prior films, and the most shocking development of the second season is how Mancini and his collaborators tackle some of the franchise’s most contentious installments. It may not always work, but it is never anything less than fascinating to behold.

Jennifer Tilly drives a car, with a young person in the passenger seat and two dolls in the backseat, in Chucky. Image: Syfy

In the aftermath of the first season, the series transplants its surviving teen trio of Jake, Devon (Björgvin Arnarson), and Lexy (Alyvia Alyn Lind) to a Catholic boarding school. Under the eye of strict nuns and a self-important headmaster, they find themselves locked down in an unfamiliar environment, much like in 1991’s Child’s Play 3. That film jumps forward in time, recasting Chucky’s child nemesis Andy Barclay as a troubled teen who’s gone from the care of his single mother to various foster families to, finally, the military academy that serves as the movie’s main setting.

Child’s Play 3 is a rather stale film, mostly notable for how jarring its pre-Columbine school gun violence plays today. To evolve with the times, the 1998 follow-up Bride of Chucky looks to the self-aware Scream and leans into comedy, giving Chucky a comedic foil in old flame Tiffany Valentine (Jennifer Tilly), who uses the book Voodoo for Dummies. Abandoning the Andy Barclay character and cranking up the absurdity, the film concludes with Tiffany giving abrupt doll-birth, the result of a fast-forward “voodoo” pregnancy that followed her and Chucky’s earlier confirmation that they were both anatomically correct and, uh, functional.

The subsequent film to follow that doll-child, Seed of Chucky, has long remained the most contentious of the franchise. Released into the early-2000s heyday of paparazzi and South Park, the film marks Mancini’s directorial debut and is far more of a gross-out Hollywood meta comedy than a conventional horror film. Separately treated as a boy, Glen, by Chucky and as a girl, Glenda, by Tiffany, the child’s gender dysphoria manifests as distinct personalities. Where Glen is timid and peaceful, Glenda embodies the horror trope of the cross-dressing murderer, albeit in a much more sympathetic light than other examples in the genre. The way the film resolves this plot point is complicated, to say the least. In what’s far and away the franchise’s most audacious meta casting gag, the Tiffany character played by Jennifer Tilly possesses the body of an actress she idolizes: Jennifer Tilly. She then gives birth to redheaded twins, which separately house the Glen personality and the Glenda personality.

Until Chucky’s second season, the franchise’s reaction to the mainstream rejection of Seed of Chucky has been to leave it in the background. The 2013 and 2017 direct-to-DVD sequels Curse of Chucky and Cult of Chucky are essentially soft reboots before the TV series’ own soft reboot, taking a back-to-basics approach that finds a Chucky doll menacing a new character, Nica Pierce (Fiona Dourif), who he eventually possesses. Tilly has a small role in the latter film, again going by “Tiffany Valentine.” Nica notes Tiffany bears a striking resemblance to Jennifer Tilly; it’s simultaneously a wink to Seed of Chucky fans and a largely extraneous, ignorable detail for those who either haven’t seen the film or dislike its broad tonal departure. There’s not a peep about Glen or Glenda until the first season of Chucky, when the killer doll tells Jake that he has a gender-fluid child he accepts because he’s “not a monster.”

Four people, including Jennifer Tilly and Joe Pantoliano, gather around a piano in fancy dress in Chucky. Image: Syfy

In its determination to reconcile every aspect of the franchise, however, Chucky no longer relegates Seed of Chucky to a fun background reference. A significant chunk of the second season is dedicated to addressing just how Tiffany has lived for so long as Jennifer Tilly. Who handles her finances? Who answers her mail? Are the cops suspicious? These questions (and more) that nobody was asking are belatedly and hilariously answered, culminating in an absolutely deranged fourth episode entirely dedicated to a murder mystery within Tilly’s mansion, where the people who knew Tilly before her possession stage an intervention. Her sister, Meg Tilly, is there, as is her friend Sutton Stracke of The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills. So, too, are beloved actors Joe Pantoliano and Gina Gershon, who co-starred with Jennifer Tilly in the Wachowskis’ masterful pre-Matrix crime thriller Bound.

The murder mystery episode seems almost separate from the rest of the series, with no cuts to the Catholic school plot that operates as the season’s main story. Chucky himself doesn’t appear at all, except in jokey bookend segments as the host, and the episode visits fictional deaths upon several nonfictional people, of the kind not seen since Seed of Chucky claimed the lives of Redman (who played himself) and Britney Spears (who did not). But most crucially, it reintroduces Glen and Glenda as nonbinary adults, both played by Lachlan Watson. And in what’s as much a testament to Watson’s performance as the series’s absurd ambitions, Glen and Glenda become pivotal characters for the rest of the series and its themes.

The increased visibility of queer narratives has been core to the Child’s Play franchise’s evolution. We see this metaphorically in the possession of Nica, who Chucky uses to resume his relationship with Tiffany. We see it in the very first episode of the TV series, too, in the artsy Jake’s difficult relationship with his father, a struggling mechanic (Devon Sawa, wearing a large goatee) reluctant to accept his son’s sexuality as anything but a phase. The return of Glen and Glenda is a natural fit, allowing Mancini to reexamine the ending to Seed of Chucky.

Chucky the doll is tied up with his mouth taped shut in Chucky. Image: Syfy

In a 2019 essay for Little White Lies, Sam Bodrojan writes, “Mancini offers the kind of touching summation countless ostensibly serious films about gender have failed to articulate. What vices and values we develop are distinct from but must also be viewed in context of our parents; their relationship with our queerness may never fully match up.” This is perhaps best seen through Chucky’s exploration of Glen and Glenda, and their mother’s decision to keep them in the dark about their true origins. They’ve never met their father and are unaware he is a killer doll. They don’t know that they themselves were once a single doll, and they have no idea the woman who raised them is a separate person who has possessed the body of Jennifer Tilly. To the world and themselves, they’re the Tilly twins. But the Tilly twins suffer from nightmares and an inescapable sense that something is missing – the fallout of a parental decision that dovetails with the broader failures of adults throughout the series.

While Jake’s father seems more agreeable when sober, his intolerance escalates to verbal and physical abuse when drunk. In the second season, Jake remarks that maybe they could have worked it out someday, but the opportunity will never come: Chucky kills Jake’s dad in the show’s first episode, hoping to goad Jake into murdering the children who ridicule him all by himself. For Vulture, Louis Peitzman observes, “The show is both literally and subtextually about coming out, with Jake working hard to suppress his inner urges. The series links Jake exploring his sexual identity with Jake exploring his killer instincts, but in a 2021 twist, it depicts both without any of the shame that traditionally colors metaphors like this.”

Though none of the other adults are so openly hostile as Jake’s father, they’re hardly much better. Jake stays with his uncle (also played by Devon Sawa, sans goatee), who relentlessly pressures his own son (Teo Briones) to run track and make it into an Ivy League college. Jake’s friend Lexy is frequently at odds with her own mother (Barbara Alyn Woods), the town’s narcissistic ex-mayor. There are good parents, but they end up dispatched alongside the bad ones, as a part of Chucky’s ultimate goal to be the only influential authority in the kids’ lives. A positive adult figure needs the opportunity to intervene and to act, and although the kids do encounter a few, people like Chucky or even the school headmaster (Devon Sawa for a third time, now in big glasses) win out by being much more assertive in their pursuit of their goals.

Even if the second season becomes crowded with all of its ideas, characters, and personalities, Chucky is a show unlike any other. With incisive examinations of itself as a franchise and more trenchant commentary on queerness in our modern age, it takes an impressively consistent look at how children are shaped by the adults they grow up with, all while remaining a wickedly fun time.

The first season of Chucky is available to watch on Peacock. The second season is available for digital purchase or rental on Amazon, Apple, and Google Play.