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Let’s begin this review of Peacock’s new Punky Brewster with a taxonomy of nostalgic TV reboots.
There are reboots that exercise progressive nostalgia. Those shows use elements of the original to attempt something new and meta within a modern world. Peacock’s recent Saved By the Bell only occasionally lived up to its aspirations, but isolated the things that were best about the original and used what didn’t work to build out a post-modern reflection on class and gender in the sitcom format.
AIR DATE Feb 25, 2021
There are reboots — more than in the above category — that exercise regressive nostalgia. Those shows effectively pretend the world hasn’t changed or moved on; they’re badly dated sitcoms ill-suited for modernity. I point to the first season of Netflix’s Fuller House as the exemplar of this type. Did Fuller House eventually find a way to grow or adapt? No clue. I don’t have time for regressive nostalgia.
Finally — and least likely to result in either greatness or awfulness — there are the reboots that exercise neutral nostalgia. These shows might try to pretend that the rhythms and tone of sitcoms haven’t changed, but they’re at least aware that the world has changed; they try to be the same type of show as the original, but with accommodations for the 21st century.
Peacock’s new Punky Brewster is a pretty safe and average example of a neutral nostalgia reboot. It’s not oblivious to the differences between 1984 and 2021 and it’s conscious of the new challenges of wearing the sitcom-with-heart moniker today. But in its broad approach to both the “sitcom” and “heart,” it’s basically just Punky Brewster, with all the inconsistencies that entails.
For those who have forgotten — or who are young enough to have grown up in a world without Punky — the series focused on the eponymous heroine (Soleil Moon Frye), abandoned at a Chicago area mall by her mother and squatting in a vacant apartment with her dog Brandon. Punky was found and adopted by an initially curmudgeonly photographer named Henry (the late George Gaynes) and, over the course of four seasons, he saved her, she saved him and warm-fuzzies constantly ensued.
Punky Brewster was a silly comedy, prone to catchphrases — PUNKY POWER! — and mugging child actors and reaction shot cutaways to the dog. It was also an oddly dark series devoted to Very Special Episodes that left a whole generation scarred. Punky grieved the Challenger disaster, was traumatized by a serial killer and learned valuable lessons about how drugs are bad and abandoned refrigerators should never be treated as playground equipment.
As updated by Steve and Jim Armogida, Henry is a mere photograph on the wall, but Punky is still trying to follow his example. Freshly divorced from gigging musician Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), is raising three kids: eye-rolling teen Hannah (Lauren Lindsey Donzis), hygiene-challenged Diego (Noah Cottrell), and Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos), who may be fashion-forward or gender nonconforming.
The family is settling into its new identity when Punky’s longtime bestie Cherie (Cherie Johnson) introduces her to young Izzy (Quinn Copeland), who is as close to a Punky clone as you can get without going into science fiction. Dressed from the Army/Navy Surplus Ragamuffin Collection, Izzy likes to break out of Fenster Hall and she has her own story of abandonment. In no time, she’s the latest piece of the Punky clan.
It’s not quite “in no time,” because the pilot for the new Punky Brewster runs a hair over 28 minutes, which allows for audience applause every time a familiar character appears on-screen or Punky makes a series callback (though it’s much, much shorter than the pilot for Fuller House, which a part of me is still trapped watching somewhere). From there, episodes settle into a sitcom-appropriate running time, which doesn’t mean the audience isn’t boisterous every time the series makes an obvious reference, from little nods like a car radio playing “Maniac” to big nods like a key returning cast member.
Thankfully, the new Punky Brewster has fewer jokes about the old Punky Brewster and more jokes simply in the vein of it — which means not particularly for grown-ups, but reasonably serviceable when delivered by competent child actors. And thankfully again, the young cast of Punky Brewster is very good by genre standards. Donzis is expressive and comically precise, the product of early Disney Channel training. Cottrell and especially De Los Santos have good timing, and Copeland has a ball-of-energy spirit that successfully harkens back to what made Frye such a good juvenile performer. Nobody here exactly seems natural, but let’s not pretend the original Punky Brewster was some paradigm of grounded entertainment, no matter how topical it was.
The six episodes sent to critics (out of 10) suggest that the new Punky Brewster is maintaining that topicality in a way that stresses sincerity, rather than darkness. So no, the Northside Stalker has not returned to terrorize Punky’s Chicago neighborhood. There’s an episode with a pat “Say No to Drugs” message, more cautious than horrified in a world in which marijuana is legal in Illinois. There’s an episode in which characters try to interpret Daniel’s decision to wear a sarong to school, with a lesson focused on general tolerance. Expanding on the themes of the original, this Punky Brewster has an earnestness in its approach to the foster care system, without suggesting an iota of evidence that it has given thought to how the foster care system in Chicago in 2021 has changed since 1984.
Gaynes and occasionally Susie Garrett had to do most of the dramatic heavy lifting in the original series, and again the grownups are entrusted with maintaining gravity. I actually found that I liked adult Soleil Moon Frye more in a quieter register, so I preferred when Punky gets to do something other than echo the character’s greatest hits. Johnson, who has only worked occasionally as an actress in recent years, is solid and has some good scenes with Jasika Nicole as Cherie’s girlfriend. Prinze has always had a likable goofiness in comic roles and he’s fine, as are several recognizable guest stars playing potential love interests for Punky. I can only assume they’re saving Punky animated series breakout Glomer for season two.
Does it matter that Punky Brewster was part of an ’80s sitcom subgenre about kids adopted by questionably suited parents, from Diff’rent Strokes to Webster to Small Wonder? Nah. This is not a reboot that has given consideration to what the property meant in 1984 and what it means now, or to the generally changing sitcom landscape. It hasn’t become a strikingly more mature or clever show to pander to its older, possibly wiser core audience. I didn’t laugh in six episodes, but I smiled here and there. It isn’t so stuck in a rut that it made me angry, nor so adroit that it made me look forward to future episodes. It’s nostalgia-neutral and quality-neutral as well.
Cast: Soleil Moon Frye, Cherie Johnson, Freddie Prinze Jr, Quinn Copeland , Noah Cottrell, Oliver De Los Santos and Lauren Lindsey Donzis
Developed By: Steve and Jim Armogida from the series created by David Duclon
Premieres Thursday, February 25, on Peacock.
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