‘Punky Brewster’ Is Back and Full of Heartwarming Nostalgia
When Punky Brewster first premiered on NBC in 1984, I was in preschool, obsessed with Strawberry Shortcake, and had a running appointment with Sesame Street every afternoon. I was probably too young to be watching Punky, but I loved it. The theme song most of all—it’s what I remembered best about the spunky tomboy with sunshine pigtail holders, bangs, mismatched sneakers, and a wild imagination. I felt seen in a way I hadn’t been by any other show.
So when NBC’s streaming service Peacock announced that Punky Brewster was coming back with 10 new episodes on February 25—and all the originals would be available to stream as well—I couldn’t wait to return to Punky’s world.
I remembered that Punky (played by an adorable eight-year-old Soleil Moon Frye) had been abandoned by her mother in a grocery store parking lot. I remembered that the gruff but loving Henry (the late George Gaynes) adopted her. And I remembered that she was best friends with her next-door neighbor Cherie, who was equally fun and spunky.
What I didn’t realize was just how sad those first few episodes actually were. I found myself bawling, not something I do easily, over Punky’s abandonment. I cried when she was sent to Fenster Hall, a bare-bones orphanage full of kids yearning for someone to love them. I cried when she had to leave her dog, Brandon, behind. I cried even harder when he whimpered like I’ve never hear a dog whimper before. And I cried at the mere thought of Punky alone for two weeks in an empty apartment, until Henry took her in.
I commend NBC for airing a show like Punky back then. It was cheesy at times, sure, but also so much more real than one would expect from an ’80s sitcom starring kids. It tackled ageism and class divides. It was diverse—not because it was told to be, but because that’s what the world looks like. Blended families were abundant. Punky wasn’t a princess-loving eight-year-old clamoring for a Barbie doll; she was more concerned with standing out than fitting in.
In the 2021 version of Punky Brewster—appropriately labeled a continuation, not a reboot—the show’s DNA is still largely intact. Punky is now a photographer (a nice nod to Henry), a single mother of three, and a soon-to-be foster mom to a young girl from Fenster Hall who reminds her of her younger self. Cherie Johnson, whose real life uncle David Duclon created the show, is back as her BFF. And though Henry has passed away, his presence lives on. (“There will be homage paid to him,” Johnson says. “Pay close attention to the sets.”)
In the new series’ first three episodes, we learn Punky has an amicable and sweet relationship with her ex-husband Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.) and their youngest son, Daniel, is a book-smart kid who experiments with eyeliner and nail polish. (At one point Travis mentions it’s probably a phase, to which Punky says it may not be and that’s fine too.) When Cherie and Punky reminisce about their most memorable kisses, Cherie excitedly details hers with a woman. (In a future episode, viewers will also meet her girlfriend.)
“We’ve tried really hard to keep that heart and authenticity that made the original so special,” Frye tells Glamour. “I think it will really connect with people who grew up with Punky and now a whole new generation as well.”
She’s right. Because if we learned anything from the original, it’s to never bet against Punky.
All 10 episodes of the new Punky Brewster are now available on Peacock.
Jessica Radloff is the Glamour West Coast editor. You can follow her on Instagram @jessicaradloff14 to see her visit to the Punky Brewster set.