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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Punky Brewster is all grown up, but Peacock’s aimless revival fails to grow with her

Illustration for article titled Punky Brewster is all grown up, but Peacock’s aimless revival fails to grow with her
Photo: Peacock
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For 88 episodes, NBC’s feel-good family sitcom Punky Brewster reigned as one of the leading comedies of the 1980s. From the moment Soleil Moon Frye ambled through an open window of an abandoned apartment, she exuded a can-do spryness that kids wanted to emulate and adults couldn’t resist. Her mismatched shoes and Day-Glo fashions were nothing short of iconic, and her lovable smile and unrestrained affection made short work of stoic curmudgeon Henry Warnimont’s (George Gaynes) hardened heart. With charisma to spare, Punky Brewter catapulted to the kind of cultural relevance that has defined similarly regarded productions like The Facts Of Life, Webster, and Saved By The Bell.

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The dauntless heroine shares another commonality with her fellow NBC alums over at Bayside High: Her series is the latest to get the revival bump from Peacock thanks to the unyielding seduction of nostalgia. But while the newest, most self-aware iteration of Saved By The Bell managed to find the sweet spot between its dated source material and today’s comedic palette, the new Punky Brewster simply dons an ill-fitted costume of an aged-up favorite without sincerely growing up, remaining reliant on old catchphrases and adorable spunk without unearthing anything that is truly fresh. And while a little mindless escapism and vaguely comforting warmth can’t hurt, it is ultimately a continuation of a story that firmly ended over 30 years ago.

Frye reprises her role as the titular firebrand Punky Brewster, and veteran fans will likely recognize some familiar beats: She’s still outspoken, optimistic to a fault, occasionally impulsive, and a perennial free spirit. Following in the footsteps of her late adopted father, she is now a passionate photographer and a doting single parent of daughter Hannah (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) and adopted sons Diego (Noah Cottrell) and Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos). They even have a golden retriever that’s reminiscent of Brandon, Punky’s childhood canine companion.

Their eccentric Chicago apartment becomes increasingly chaotic with the addition of Izzy (Quinn Copeland), a brazen foster child who, much like Punky in her youth, has weathered her share of difficult circumstances and quietly longs for a loving family and some much-needed stability. Whenever motherhood gets particularly complex, Punky can lean on her loyal best friend, Cherie (Cherie Johnson), and unflinchingly supportive ex-husband, Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.). In true sitcom fashion, every conflict arises and concludes within a 22-minute window, but the stakes are consistently low, with whole episodes dedicated to arguments over living arrangements and dating. Perhaps the show’s biggest attempt at substance is its approach to gender and sexuality as it applies to Daniel, who enjoys wearing nail polish and the occasional comfort of a sarong. Still, even that matter is handled with a fair amount of saccharine clumsiness, as Punky’s strong desire to understand Daniel borders on invasive.

Punky Brewster
Punky Brewster
Photo: NBCUniversal/Peacock

To her credit, Frye is noticeably eager to hop back into her mismatched sneakers and tap into the same verve that made Punky a household name, offering kindness and passion by the pound. Surrounded by a young cast of energetic novices determined to bring some of the same precocious charm that endeared the nation from ’84 to ’88, the show’s central star seems equipped to evoke Punky’s original essence. It’s as virtuous as it is indicative of this go-round’s overall struggle to convey a bona fide plan to update Punky’s existence, opting to simply place a beer bottle in her hand and make ham-fisted references to TikTok rather than tell a solid story. Between her occasionally childlike mannerisms, inexplicable stubbornness, and even her taste in music, Punky herself has barely matured. A small gripe, but an example of this, nonetheless: In the second episode, Punky tortures her children with a karaoke version of Michael Sembello’s “Maniac,” a clear reference to her go-to jam in the original series. Has she seriously not updated her music library since 1983? For as much as the show claims to be a step forward, it is still fixated on the past.

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Minor perplexities aside, the core staleness of the series extends beyond shallowly conceived notions of adulthood; the execution of the material itself is also anchored in the ’80s with predictable jokes and uninspired tropes. Rather than tinker with the Brewster-verse in order to bring it to the present, the creators seemingly place these characters right at the edge of something potentially interesting before ultimately resting on rote storytelling: Cherie, for instance, gets to be a queer woman in a loving relationship with a serious girlfriend, but is still largely relegated to the dated Sassy Black Best Friend role with little development. Punky is a divorced, single mother, yet her ex is such a hovering presence in the Brewster apartment that he should be chipping in on rent, or least remaining out of the way while Punky makes her own parenting decisions.

Punky Brewster
Punky Brewster
Photo: NBCUniversal/Peacock
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It would be fine if they were just peacefully co-parenting or learning how to be friends after their recent breakup, which are interesting perspectives in their own right. Instead, the script tries so desperately to establish lingering romantic ties between the two to justify Travis’ presence, despite the total lack of chemistry to pull off such a concept. Prinze Jr. is amenable enough, but he registers more as a familiar, famous face than a necessary component to this chapter in Punky’s life. Gleaning any real motivation for these “edgier” touches is a challenge, and the mostly empty back-and-forth doesn’t give away any clues as to what series creator/reviver David W. Duclon and company aim to really do with this excavated property. (The show makes a brief attempt at an arc when Punky’s long-lost mother calls at the end of the pilot. It’s mentioned only once more thereafter and then thoroughly forgotten for the remainder of the six episodes available for review. Perhaps they revisit the issue in the second half of the season, but who knows?)

Overall, Punky Brewster is so beholden to the sitcom stylings of its origins that it’s difficult to view this as a truly sustainable premise in today’s landscape. That’s not to say that it would benefit from being grittier or hyperrealistic; thoroughly delightful shows like Ted Lasso, Kim’s Convenience, Schitt’s Creek, Superstore, and many others have long proven that there is still ample space for wholesome family comedies. But the through-line with these efforts is a story with a real heartbeat, which this revival largely lacks. All that said, if you’ve ever randomly tweeted in the twee hours of the night, “Hey, I wonder what Punky Brewster would be like as a mom of four,” then this could be just the thing to satiate that curiosity. It just won’t inspire much else in the process.

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