‘Punky Brewster’ Revival Banks on Joyful Nostalgia: TV Review

This pandemic has people everywhere in a funk. But as vaccinations are rolled out and hope looms on the horizon, is a trailer-touting “funky Punky” the nostalgic lift that frazzled parents, sentimental fans, and a new wave of younger viewers need? Peacock certainly seems to think so.

The 10-part “Punky Brewster” revival dropped Feb. 25 on the streaming service, which has already seen early success in the nostalgia department with its “Saved By the Bell” reimagining. However while the latter project, which was recently renewed for a second season, leans heavily on new characters and offers only glimpses of beloved figures past, “Punky Brewster” remains all about its protagonist. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Soleil Moon Frye has always had the ability to capture audiences, with her real-life optimism spilling over into the character she first popularized when she was eight years old. (Back then she insisted on going through with her audition, despite being told that another child had landed the part.) That Pollyanna outlook remains an integral character piece in the revival, despite the mother-of-three going through her aforementioned funk after separating from her husband, Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.).

That storyline is one of several threads set up in the premiere. In addition to learning how to be single again, Punky is raising three children—her daughter Hannah (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) and her adopted sons Diego (Noah Cottrell) and Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos). There’s also a golden retriever named Brandy, who may or may not be related to Punky’s original pup, Brandon. Travis is also constantly in the picture despite the separation, leading to a whole new kind of normal as far as modern families go. But the biggest driver is Punky’s decision by the end of episode one to take in Izzy (Quinn Copeland), the foster child from Fenster Hall that Punky’s BFF Cherie (Cherie Johnson) introduces her to.

The series unrolls from there, as Punky reflects on her past while connecting with Izzy, presenting a rare sitcom opportunity for a character to address past trauma. Unfortunately, every time she—or any other character—comes close to addressing a formative experience the series glosses over it in that 22-minute, “special episode” kind of way. A major reveal at the end of the premiere is all but forgotten in the remaining five episodes made available to press, Izzy’s concerns over being given back are played to comedic effect, and then there’s the cringeworthy storyline in episode six, in which Cherie and her girlfriend Lauren (Jasika Nicole) have a “playdate” with Punky’s son Daniel in an attempt to pry out his gender identity on behalf of a confused Punky.

While some fans may find the lack of depth in such storytelling disappointing, the approach is in line with what the original 1980s series first presented. The original “Punky Brewster”—which tackled topics like the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion and the dangers of playing hide-and-seek in a retro refrigerator—sometimes aired in 15-minute installments in order to keep a consistent, post-football schedule on Sunday nights for eager younger viewers. In that vein the family friendly revival can be seen as a way to briefly introduce tough topics to families and children, creating a launchpad for further conversations after the end credits roll.

Where that approach perhaps misses the mark is in its failure to branch out beyond the family and Cherie. Most of the action takes place in the main apartment set, and although the characters venture out to Fenster Hall, a bar, a convention, or at one point to a strange escape room, the cameras don’t follow these children to school as they did when Punky and Cherie were in their younger years. That decision could be in part due to filming restrictions in the coronavirus era, plus there are four times as many children to track in the immediate family as there were in the original. But not having supporting child-characters or teachers weigh in on some of the issues presented is a missed opportunity for even more perspective and world-building.

Still, there’s plenty of original Punky charm to go around. Cynics may cringe at an adult woman boasting about her “Punky power” years later, but Frye’s pure commitment to joy (not to mention physical comedy) is as infectious as ever. Jokes about wearing mismatching sneakers or drinking orange juice out of the container are perhaps trite—especially against the show’s laugh track—but other references (“holy macanoli,” jamming out to “Maniac”) are subtle and used sparingly.

That is in part because this Punky is grown up whether she wants to admit it or not. This is a character who swigs beers and jokes about “faking it” to bad music or being turned off by a “bad guitar face.” As the season progresses, her dating life (along with such adult innuendos) is as much a part of the narrative as the children’s storylines. This time around it’s Punky who doles out advice in her heart-to-hearts with her children and in particular Izzy (played with equally joyous aplomb by Copeland), reminding viewers of the chats Punky used to share with her adoptive father, Henry (the late actor George Gaynes). And then there are Copeland’s scenes opposite Prinze Jr. and big sister Donzis, which further highlight this concept of a next-generational “Izzy power.”

That’s all to say that while this show isn’t exactly new or ground-breaking as so many savvy viewers perhaps expect a comedy to be these days, Punky’s rainbow-lens goggles and penchant for finding the joy in life may be the fare that ragged families everywhere need right about now.

“Punky Brewser” debuts Feb. 25 on Peacock.

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