Punky Brewster first aired on September 16, 1984. It ran for four seasons and eventually led to a cartoon spin-off series. The series, with the exception of this pilot episode, is available on the NBC app. I purchased the episode I’m reviewing now on Amazon Prime for $1.99. If you decide you want to watch the series, but skip this episode, the recap for Part 2 does a good job catching you up.
“Punky Brewster” stars Soleil Moon Frye as a precocious little girl, “Punky,” making her way in the world after… recently being abandoned by both of her parents. Yikes. I guess this was kind of a modern take on the Little Orphan Annie story.
Episode Plot Synopsis:
The show opens with 8 year old Punky and her friend Cherie Johnson (played by an actress also named Cherie Johnson – you might remember her as Laura Winslow’s friend Maxine in ‘Family Matters’) in an unfurnished apartment. Cherie tells Punky how much she admires her for living on her own. But it’s clear Punky is hiding out. As was shown to us in the opening credits, Punky and her puppy Brandon climbed up the fire escape of the building, found an unlocked window, and began squatting.
Cherie lives upstairs from Punky with her grandmother, Betty (played by Susie Garrett.) She has been bringing food down to Punky and Brandon though we do not know for how long.
Pretty soon after we meet Punky and Cherie, the camera cuts away to the hallway where Betty is telling Henry Warnimont, the building manager who lives across the hall (played by George Gaynes) that she has been hearing noises from that empty apartment. After some banter between Betty and Henry – a lot of it Henry making jokes about Betty being fat and Betty complaining about the broken dryer in the building – Henry decides to keep an eye on the door to the “empty” apartment and sees Cherie sneaking out.
Then Henry goes in and meets Punky.
Henry is an elderly widower photographer. We find out his wife died, decades ago, after he had only been married a year. He decided to never allow himself to feel anything again. Punky tells Henry that her father walked out on her and her mom, that her mother took her on a road trip from someplace as yet unknown, and left her in a Chicago grocery store (along with her dog Brandon), and that Punky has been alone on the streets for a couple of weeks.
For some reason, instead of Punky staying with Cherie and her grandmother, Punky ends up staying at Henry’s place on his couch. Finders keepers? After she cleaned his apartment the first time he leaves her alone there, Henry returns and erupts in anger at her. I mean, I guess that’s understandable. Abandoned girl cleans your place. She deserves to go. So he tells her that she cannot stay with him. Punky runs away and Henry spends three and a half hours looking for her. When he finally gives up and comes home, he finds her in his apartment.
Somehow, Henry is the best person Punky knows. He starts having some human empathy again. Punky decides she likes Henry, grumpiness and all. So the two of them want to stay together until Punky’s mother can be found. Since this is a 3 part series opener, I suspect parts 2 and 3 will be laying the implausible groundwork for how on earth it might be possible for an almost 70 year old man to keep an abandoned 8 year old little girl and get the old “I guess this is okay” from Child Services.
I’m shook. For a show that marketed itself as a family comedy, this is a bleak and heavy pilot. I felt emotionally abused while watching it. This adorable little girl is abandoned by a parent twice. The second time it happens, she’s in an unfamiliar place with unfamiliar people. Punky kind of wanders around for a couple of weeks, probably extremely hungry, and based on the opening credits of the show, nobody really seems to care. “Oh hey, little girl, by yourself in Chicago, thank you for help with my groceries, here is some money, and I will not ask where your parents are, okay?” WHAT?! When she is found squatting in an empty apartment, she goes to live with the grumpy old man? On what planet is ANY grandmother sending an 8 year old girl to live with the old man? ON WHAT EARTH?!? What kind of subtle message about society was this show sending to the little kids who watched it? “You are not safe. Your parents could leave you any minute. Nobody will care. But if you’re lucky, when that happens, you can couch surf with a retiree.”
If you get past that though, Soleil Moon Frye is great. And by that I mean I did not break my TV after watching this episode. Since this show somehow ran for multiple years, I guess America in the 1980s kept watching, too.
Henry: Tonight you’ll stay here. And tomorrow I’ll take you down to the Department of Child and Family Services.
Punky: And what will happen to me there?
Henry: They’ll find you a foster home.
Punky: But I don’t even know the Fosters!
Punky: You know, I must be a terrible person. First my father leaves. Then my mother ditches me. Now you’re trying to get rid of me. Nobody wants me around. Well that’s okay. ‘Cause I don’t need anybody. I can take care of myself.
Henry: I was out for three and a half hours looking for you! Where have you been!?
Punky: Right here. It was RAINING outside.