Anyone who was a child in the 80s remembers Punky Brewster. The iconic series, which ran on NBC and in syndication from 1984-1988, followed the lovable eight-year-old Punky (Soleil Moon Frye) who is tragically abandoned at a grocery story by her mother, and ultimately adopted by the kindly Henry (the late George Gaynes). Known for her distinct fashion choices (how many of us wore overalls and mismatched shoes?) and optimistic outlook, Punky left an indelible mark on our collective memory.
“I think that the world needed that Punky power then and I think that the world can use some of that power now,” Frye said in a recent phone interview. “And how beautiful that it’s come full circle. The show was not just a show. It was our lives in so many ways and still fundamentally is and I think Punky connected to people in such a unique way. We all go through dynamics in our life of this roller coaster, and our families are flawed and perfectly imperfect. Also there’s so much pain out there, and she healed so much through pain.”
In the new 10-episode Peacock series, Punky is now a divorced mom of three raising her brood in the same Chicago apartment she lived in as a child. Cherie Johnson returns to play Punky’s best friend Cherie and, in the pilot episode—mirroring the launch of the original series—Punky becomes a foster mom to Izzy (Quinn Copeland). Frye, who says she’s been wanting to reboot the series for years, hopes this 2021 version of Punky will similarly resonate with viewers.
“I love that this is a show that my family has been watching together,” the mom of four said. “And I really hope that other families can come together and watch it too, and we can explore the different topics that we face in life in an authentic way, and make people smile and laugh and also sit around the dinner table and have real conversations. That’s what I think the original did so beautifully, and we really tried to continue on in the lineage of it.”
Like most busy moms these days, Cherie Johnson says can’t remember what she ate for lunch yesterday. But she remembers every episode of Punky Brewster that she filmed as a child. “I think it’s because Punky was the best part of my life,” Johnson said. “I remember every single day. I remember every single episode. I still know some of our old lines. I can tell you a speech that I did when I was seven which is just absurd.”
And now these actors who grew up on TV find themselves as mentors to the revival’s young cast. “I walked on the set one day and I looked around and I realized I’m George. I’m the oldest one on this set,” Johnson said laughing.
Johnson and Frye have stayed in touch over the years but say as they got older and were raising their children sometimes a few years would go by before they reconnected. “But once you put us back together, we are like two little girls all over again. I think we were telepathically speaking through the years,” Johnson says.
In the original series, the show tackled difficult topics of the day including the crash of the Space Shuttle Challenger, Henry losing his business to a fire, and the time Cherie got trapped in an abandoned refrigerator. “I think one of the reasons that Punky lives on is that our cast gave you characters you could resonate with,” Johnson says. “We went through things that everyone else was going through as well. We didn’t shy away from those hard topics or those current events that were happening. We kind of tackled them. I really feel like we all grew up together. And we’re still talking about those topics that my daughter will be going through and I’m going through as well.”
The Peacock revival approaches the 2021 discourse with a deft aplomb. In one example, Cherie is a lesbian with a girlfriend (Jasika Nicole), something that isn’t portrayed as a big deal and shouldn’t be, but sometimes TV hasn’t caught up with the world. “Coming out is such a weird thing anyway,” Johnson says. “Nobody comes out and says, ‘I’m straight.’ Representation really matters. We talk about everything and how you receive it is really on you. It’s important to represent everybody and that’s one of the things the show does.”
In keeping with its desire for representation, one of Punky’s son’s Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos) likes to paint his nails and wear sarongs. While supportive, his parents aren’t exactly sure how to handle this. For Freddie Prinze Jr., who joins the series as Punky’s ex-husband Travis, comedy can be a starting point to opening viewers’ minds. “I think comedy teaches us the most digestible lessons,” he says. “Richard Pryor was a beautiful example of this and the type of social change he wanted to be a part of but you never felt like you were being preached at. That’s what people in general reject when someone comes at you. If you can make them laugh and get their attention, that’s when you can kind of affect change.”
Prinze really appreciated that the show didn’t offer pat, easy solutions. “This show had a very old school feeling when I read it,” he said. “It wasn’t solving the world’s problems in 22 minutes. They were still problems at the end of the show.”
Though Prinze says he was basically retired from acting and focusing on being a full-time, stay-at-home dad when Brian Austin Green, a mutual friend of both Prinze and Frye, convinced him to read the script.
“I wasn’t even going to be a series regular,” he said. “I was going to do two episodes. But everything felt right. Soleil is like the sun you just gravitate towards her. You can see that little Punky Brewster girl that is still is within her and a big part of her personality.”
Frye, who has Kid 90 her documentary about being a child star in the 90s airing on Hulu next month, doesn’t mind still being associated with a character she created almost four decades ago. “If I’m 88 years old and people still call me ‘Punky’ I will be totally happy with it,” she says. “I’ve always said I don’t know where Punky ends and I begin.”
All ten episodes of Punky Brewster begin streaming Thursday, February 25th on Peacock.
Amy Amatangelo, the TV Gal®, is a Boston-based freelance writer, a member of the Television Critics Association and the Assistant TV Editor for Paste. She wasn’t allowed to watch much TV as a child and now her parents have to live with this as her career. You can follow her on Twitter (@AmyTVGal).
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