The 2nd installment of our three part pilot of Punky Brewster throws some hard reality on our main characters.
Henry Warnimont – the elderly Chicago building manager / photographer who found a little girl living in an empty apartment in his building – calls Child Services. He promises Punky that she can stay with him until they find her mother. But it turns out that you do not get to keep any lost human being that you might happen to find.
The social worker who comes to check on Punky threatens to have Henry arrested when he protests her intention to take Punky into an emergency care facility, “Fenster Hall.” Punky, not wanting to see Henry go to jail, offers the social worker her own wrists for cuffing, instead.
Punky goes to Fenster Hall. As she walks into the building, the camera perspective is low (as if from the perspective of a child) so that the audience is looking upward at the faces of the other children playing when she walks in. The score also changes to a rock and roll riff so that you know she is in a rough place. It is a clever and painfully effective choice by the director.
Punky’s two new roommates at Fenster Hall are an older teenage girl, Lisa, with a chip on her shoulder, and a younger girl Mary who does not speak. Our colorful little heroine faces down her teenage roommate would-be bully, wins her respect, and the three children become fast friends. Every person who meets Punky seems to be won over by her almost immediately. That makes the tragedy of her mother’s abandonment more painful to watch.
We cut back to Henry’s apartment again. Brandon the dog is eating Henry’s socks. The two of them commiserate over missing Punky. Then the social worker visits Henry and gives him an update on Punky. She lets Henry know that “she’s adjusting,” gives him an update on when Punky’s temporary custody hearing will occur, and then tells him that even though Punky wants to live with him, and even though he wants her to stay with him, she does not think Henry should be allowed to take her in.
The episode ends with Punky deciding that she needs to escape from Fenster Hall. Her roommate Lisa tells her that it is impossible to escape, with Mute Mary nodding silently in agreement. But the two girls decide to help her out anyway. After a couple failed escape attempts, Mute Mary finally speaks and suggests, “why don’t you just go out the window?” The next thing we see as the audience is Mary running to tell the security guard that Punky went out the window. After marveling that she spoke, he runs into the girls’ room and crawls out the open window in order to see Punky descending the fire escape. But he does not see her. Instead, he sees the three girls closing and locking the window behind him to enable Punky’s escape out the front door instead.
This show is emotionally abusive. If you are going to attempt to watch it, you need to know that going in.
One more specific adjustment I have made while watching Punky Brewster is stylistic in nature. The show is filmed, and in some cases acted, as though it is a live theater production. TV is just not made that way anymore. And in the vein of a theater production, the characters are played just a touch more dramatically for the audience reaction. Given the subject matter, any additional drama leaves my ears craving a live audience of wailing, irrational, parents. The live audience laughter we get instead comes across to me like this show is taking place in front of a room of sociopaths.
Getting back on track… we learn in this episode that Punky is a nickname for “Penelope.”
One part of this episode I did not mention in the plot recap: We are introduced to “Eddie the building super” as comedic relief. He plays extremely dumb, enthusiastic, marginally mentally challenged, and incompetent… for laughs. If this was funny in 1984, I think those laughs are lost somewhere in the passing of time. So if he becomes a recurring character, I hope some adjustments are made. The crucial role he played in this episode is that his persistent knocking on Henry’s door led to Henry accidentally yelling at the social worker (who knocked right after Eddie left) on two different occasions.
It is actually hard to fault the social worker for telling Henry that he does not seem like a good person to care for Punky. From her perspective, Henry is a lonely, ill-tempered, old man. In addition to yelling at her, at the door, twice, Henry also tells her unprompted at one point that he is not “used to feeling much of anything.” Ideally, I do not think Child Services should be leaving small girls with lonely, angry, old men to whom they are not related. But what do I know?
The scene where Punky says goodbye to her puppy Brandon, because he is not allowed to come to Fenster Hall with her, is… sad. The only sunshine in the entire Punky Brewster cinematic universe is the girl herself, apparently. But, as sad as that scene was, I’m pretty sure I heard the dog dream barking while she was saying that goodbye. I cannot help but imagine a few hours later when Brandon the puppy wakes up and realizes his owner is gone.
If that whole goodbye was not cruel enough, immediately after we get a dramatic “Punky packs up a framed picture of herself and Henry for the road, waves bye to Henry, closes the door, then runs back inside for one last hug” moment.
Is the audience supposed to be cheering for Punky to escape the emergency Child Care place? Are we supposed to root for an 8 year old to be alone on the streets of Chicago? Apparently?
Let me reiterate my initial reaction again – this show is emotionally abusive.
“Now wait a minute. You can’t just walk in here off the street and take away a child… who walked in here off the street.”
“Henry, I don’t want you to go to jail! He’s too old to eat bread and water. He needs prunes!”
“Mary, you don’t say much, but when you do it’s primo.”
“So long, Fenster! Punky Brewster is going home!”