In the fall of 1984, America was introduced to Penelope Brewster (Soleil Moon Frye), a scrappy little kid whose mother left her and her dog in a mall parking lot to fend for herself. After holing up in the apartment of cantankerous old widower Henry (George Gaynes), Penelope — Punky to her friends — wins him over, becoming his foster child and eventually his daughter. Four seasons, a Saturday morning cartoon, and a whole KB Toys location's worth of merch followed; even if you've never watched a frame of the show, the name "Punky Brewster" probably still conjures the image of freckles, brunette pigtails, and multi-colored high-tops. When a brand is this strong, someone's bound to eventually revive it, and Punky's time is now.
Punky's done a lot of living since we last saw her in the '80s: she's now the mother of three, ranging in age from tween to teen. She's not only living in Henry's old apartment, which she inherited when he died; she also followed him into his former career as a photographer. And she's relatively newly divorced from Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), a touring musician with whom she's still on very friendly terms. Punky's also still close with her childhood best friend Cherie (Cherie Johnson), who's now the director at Fenster Hall, the temporary residence for orphans where Punky briefly lived before moving in with Henry. Punky's at Fenster Hall taking photos of the adoptable kids when, in a skewed reprise of Punky's own story in the original series pilot, Cherie introduces her to Izzy (Quinn Copeland). Like Punky, Izzy is a sassy little girl who's not convinced her mom might not still come back for her, and has a penchant for escape. Punky initially resists Cherie's attempts to get her to foster Izzy, but it's obvious the two are meant to be in each other's lives, and soon Punky is the mother of four.
Punky Brewster 2021 is definitely in the same class of sitcom revival as Girl Meets World and Fuller House: it follows the same old-fashioned (read: corny) sitcom beats that will be familiar and comforting to fans of the original series that spawned it, with a few modern touches. In Punky's case, it's queer representation: Cherie is living with her girlfriend, Lauren (Fringe's Jasika Nicole); and Punky's younger son Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos) is experimenting with makeup and sarongs, while Punky and Travis make very sure he knows they're supportive of any kind of gender expression he likes. The plots will also be familiar to a generation raised by laugh tracks: the kids complain about having to share rooms; Punky's oldest daughter Hannah (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) pretends to enjoy her new crush's hobbies; whose joint is this?!
As befits a show that has, in its core cast, two characters whose parents abandoned them, Punky also addresses heavier subject matter, like Izzy's worry that if she doesn't perfectly fit into the family, Punky will take her back to Fenster Hall — something that has already happened to her with a previous foster situation. A series is always going to be challenged when it comes to casting child actors, and — not to be rude about these young and very talented thespians — the skill level naturally goes down along with their ages. Donzis is such a deft multi-cam performer I thought for sure they were aging her down with those bangs, but no, she's (officially) 16. Next is Noah Cottrell as Diego, who has a relaxed confidence that reminded me of later Marcel Ruiz on One Day At A Time. De Los Santos is fine, and Copeland is... cute, which is why it's too bad so many of the show's big emotional moments rest on her tiny shoulders; Izzy may test your tolerance for cloying kid business.
Frye, obviously a former child star herself, is a great acting partner to Copeland, and inasmuch as any of Izzy's heart-tugging scenes work, Frye deserves the credit for creating their chemistry. And speaking of chemistry: she also has it with Prinze. Making them exes would have been a smart workaround in case the two actors clashed, but they are charming, both in their scenes together and separately. I appreciate that the show's writing explicitly makes Punky and Travis friends without creating any ambiguity about their possibly reuniting as a couple, at least in the episodes provided to critics. Some young viewers will be children of divorce, and it's important for TV to model for them that parents who are exes can get along without giving young viewers false hope that they might get back together, and therefore that their own divorced parents might, too; this feels like an intentional choice, and if so, I applaud it as a very responsible one. (If this turns out not to be the case: boo!)
Young viewers are not the only ones the revival serves, of course: the presence of Cherie, a later appearance from her and Punky's old frenemy Margaux (Ami Foster), and frequent references to Henry and to plotlines from the original series will all be catnip to '80s-era fans. The new Punky Brewster is not as arch as Peacock's Saved By The Bell, nor as smart as Netflix's aforementioned One Day At A Time, but it is sweet, touching, and occasionally even clever. Family members of all ages will not hate watching it together.
Punky Brewster drops on Peacock February 25th.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.