Spoilers ahead. This is a Punky Brewster Season 1 review, so heartache and despair are also ahead. Reader discretion is advised.
Airing initially in fall of 1984, Punky Brewster is the story of an eight year old girl who was separately abandoned, first by her father, and then by her mother at a Chicago grocery store. After the second abandonment, and several days living on her own, Punky and her puppy Brandon take refuge inside an unoccupied apartment building.
Punky is eventually discovered. The first person to find her is fellow 8 year old Cherie Johnson. Cherie lives in an apartment upstairs with her grandmother. The two girls quickly become best friends. Punky is eventually also discovered by the building manager, Henry Warnimont. Henry is 60 years old and unmarried. When he is mot managing the apartment building in which he lives, he is a studio photographer. After finding Punky squatting in his empty apartment, Henry takes her in, to live with himself, with a promise to help her locate her mother, Susan.
Henry’s search for Susan Brewster is unsuccessful. Punky is taken to a facility that cares for abandoned and neglected children – Fenster Hall – until such a time that the local government can find her some suitable foster parents. Punky pleads for Henry to be her foster father. She convinces Henry to want the job. Eventually, the city of Chicago and the State of Illinois agree to let him be a foster parent.
The series is built upon this premise. The individual episodes focus on the day to day struggle of a lifelong hermit / cheapskate / curmudgeon learning to be a selfless parent. Other episodes focus on Punky struggling with her past trauma and the friction created by her new living circumstances.
When I began the re-watch of this series, I knew going in that Punky’s backstory was rough. I did not know, however, that almost every episode would feel like I was experiencing a trauma. Many sitcoms are built around a tragic origin story. Lest we forget, Full House was a show built on the premise that Danny Tanner, a father of three girls, unexpectedly loses his wife in a drunk driving accident. As a result of that accident, his best friend Joey and his brother-in-law Jesse move in to help raise the girls. That show dealt with that origin story occasionally. But there were many lighthearted and fun episodes to break things up. Punky Brewster, by contrast, is an unrelenting house of pain.
Here is a list of tragedy from just season 1:
- Punky is abandoned by her mother inside a grocery store – leaving Punky all alone with her dog Brandon.
- Punky, an 8 year old, lives on her own for a couple of weeks before an adult notices and takes her in.
- Punky is taken to Fenster Hall after Henry told her that she would not need to go.
- On their first grocery store outing together, Punky loses sight of Henry for a few moments and has a panic attack that he has abandoned her in the exact same manner that her mother did.
- Punky’s “friend” Margaux tells her, prior to Parents’ Night at her school, that foster parents do not love their children as much as real parents. Henry’s behavior (he skips the event) corroborates that tale for most of the episode.
- Punky becomes so panicked over hearing Henry complain about how expensive she is that she wanders alone through Chicago and tries to get a bank loan to pay for herself.
- Henry carelessly throws away Punky’s most dear possession, her doll, “My,” one of her last remaining connections to her mother Susan.
- Henry temporarily becomes engaged to be married. Henry’s bride-to-be wants to send Punky to a European boarding school. When Henry rejects the idea, Punky decides not to stand in the way of Henry’s happiness. She runs away during a Chicago blizzard and leaves a note. She nearly freezes to death outside before finding shelter with a kind homeless teenager who uses information on Brandon’s dog collar to call Henry.
- There is an entire episode built around Punky having a nightmare about being old, alone, and abandoned by everyone she knows for their significant others.
- Brandon is hit by a car. While waiting in the vet’s office with an elderly widow who confesses she does not know if she can make it without her own dog, Angus, Punky gets news that Brandon needs to be put down. Brandon miraculously pulls through. While Brandon pulls through, Angus dies, and the older lady walks home alone.
- Punky is abandoned by both of her best friends, Margaux and Cherie, when she gets a “Butter Lettuce doll” and they do not.
- Punky walks in on a ski mask wearing burglar, in her bedroom, who takes a jewelry box given to her by her mother Punky pursues the thief alone and on foot. The thief is an 11 year old boy, T.C., who lives in a hovel with a dangerous switchblade wielding criminal named Blade. After seeing the older boy’s living situation, Punky invites him to come live with her. Henry instead forcibly takes the boy to Fenster Hall.
- We learn that T.C.’s mother is dead and that his father abandoned him. In fact, T.C. and his father lived in a trailer. One day, T.C. came home from school and the trailer was gone. T.C. nearly died alone on the streets before he was taken in by the criminal, Blade. He steals on behalf of Blade so as to avoid violence from Blade.
If you happen to be into “TV that make me cry” then this might be the show for you. Punky Brewster is probably more tear-inducing than This is Us. With the tough emotional subject matter in mind, I began questioning who the target market for this show was. I remembered the show as being aimed largely at children. You see that list above. Surely not, right? Well… it turns out that the show, which competed against CBS’s 60 Minutes, had the most success in the 2 to 11 year old demographic. I honestly cannot imagine introducing this show to a small child. But if you think your kid does not sufficiently appreciate that you might take him to a store and disappear, then maybe let him or her give this show a look.
There are a few oddities specific to Punky Brewster in Season 1 that are worth mentioning. Several of the episodes are truncated into two 12 minute parts. This was done because the show aired on Sunday Nights immediately after football games on NBC. The TV execs in charge of the show believed that the young audience would find this more palatable than joining an episode “already in progress.”
Another oddity of the show was its Season 1 finale. Fenster Hall (parts 1 and 2) were designed as a spin-off pilot for a TV series that was never picked up. The show was set to be built around T.K. Carter’s Mike Fulton character and Billy Lombardo’s T.C. Finestra character. The one hour pilot was divided into two parts for Punky Brewster when it went to syndication.
If I have seemed hard on this show, it is because the show was hard on me. That said, the show also deserves plenty of praise – namely its two co-stars.
Soleil (so-lay) Moon Frye was a bona fide 8 year old star. She had great comedic timing and she could draw out either laughter or tears when the scene called for it. The show usually asked her to make the audience cry but she can do either. There are a lot of laughs in season 1, too, which is impressive work considering how heavy almost every single episode was.
George Gaynes’s Henry Warnimont was terrific, too. It wold have been easy for Henry to be a creepy character. A sixty year old unmarried man, living alone with an 8 year old to whom he is not related, is inherently a creepy notion. George managed to deliver the performance in a way that was not. He also did a masterful job of walking a line between a believable curmudgeon (with the type of strange interests and hobbies one might acquire over a life spent living alone) and a man who is softhearted and open to change. George is also an example of an older era of acting, now out of fashion, wherein a Mid-Atlantic accent is used that intentionally blends British and Northeastern Americans accents. My ears love hearing it.
Miscellaneous thoughts and theories about Season 1:
Throughout Season 1, I began to puzzle out the mystery of Punky’s abandonment. Is it plausible that an 8 year old girl who has demonstrated multiple times that she can navigate Chicago by herself does not remember where she used to live? No. The most plausible explanation for Punky being unable to find her mother is that Susan Brewster must not have had a fixed address for some period of time prior to Punky’s abandonment.
The show never actually addresses the search for Punky’s mother, at all, but something like that above explanation must be why the authorities were unable to find her.
Is it likely, though, that Punky would not know the names and location of other people from her past? In my opinion… no. If there is a Grandma Brewster out there somewhere, or an Aunt or Uncle, Punky is old enough to not only know about them but also know how to find them. We should therefore assume that none of these types of people actually exist. Maybe Punky has no connection with her father’s side of the family. We do not know *when* he abandoned their family. If it was early enough in Punky’s life, she might not know about relatives of her father. That seems like a plausible explanation. But what about Punky’s mom? Maybe Susan Brewster is an only child and maybe Punky’s grandparents have already passed away. That is possible. However, the more maybes we add to the explanation, the more tenuous it begins to feel.
Here is where the backstory begins to fall apart for me: Punky is in 3rd grade. She has been to some form of school prior to meeting Henry. She seems to actually be ahead academically and she adjusted seamlessly to a classroom setting. She is not a girl who has been living out of a car for years. Months, maybe, but not years. Presumably, then, she knows which school she attended before meeting Henry. As a result, Punky has pre-existing relationships with teachers and other students. Is it plausible that absolutely nobody who already knew Punky could give any helpful information? No. I just do not buy it. Someone knows something.
Option One: The local government does not want Punky to find her friends and family.
Option Two: Punky does not want to find her own friends and family.
The problem with Option One is that you also have to assume Punky lacks agency. The show demonstrates repeatedly that this is not the case for Madame Punky Power. If Punky wanted to find her Mom, she is more than capable of doing the leg work herself. She could call the school she used to attend, in the town she used to live. She does not do that leg work.
Option two then is the most likely option. Punky Brewster herself is the choke point of information regarding her past. The government can believably fail to track down Punky’s mother if Punky believably does not give them the necessary information to do so. Why would Punky keep secrets about her past?
Option 3: The PUNKY POWER hypothesis: Punky Brewster is some type of human experiment. On a few occasions, she cites her own supernatural abilities and sees them manifest.
- When Henry was having a mental breakdown about missing the Cubs’ playoff game, she not only arranges for Henry to attend the game – as an 8 year old – but she arranges for Henry to literally sit in the dugout for the game.
- When Punky’s fishing trip with Henry is going badly, and Henry is disappointed that the kids are not catching fish nor enjoying themselves, Punky calls on her Punky Power to reel in a fish and to provide many fish caught for the entire group.
- Punky calls upon Punky Power and raises Brandon from the almost dead.
What if Punky previously attended some kind of school for the supernaturally gifted, in some kind of normal-seeming facility of government workers? What if her “mother” helped her to escape from this school? What if her mother did not abandon her but instead, rather, turned her loose?
Punky growing up in a secret government facility could also possibly explain why she does not know where she is from.
Punky: “I’m from _______.”
Policeman: “I’m sorry Punky, we do not know where that is” while thinking that she must be saying the name of the place incorrectly or remembering it incorrectly.
If she grew up in a secret facility, it might also explain the lack of ability to connect with people in her life before she turned 8. Maybe you cannot call into the place where she is from. Punky – very plausibly – would be reticent to tell anyone about her powers. In truth, maybe she does not want to go back.
Is there any other evidence of Punky growing up in such a place? The evidence is scant, but, yes.
- She has a lot of personal interest in, and knowledge of, the Western U.S. When she plans to run away, she tells Cherie that she is heading “west.” What type of facilities are located in the western U.S.? Well… secret government facilities, actually. (See: Area 51.)
- She has a keen interest in outer space. If a person grew up in Area 51, is it likely that she would be interested in space? I think so.
I am cooking up a separate theory about Cherie Johnson, too. She might be the link between our world, Punky’s World, ABCs TGIF world… and maybe all worlds? We can wait to see how Season 2 plays out before we decide on that, though.
Speaking of Season 2, I am taking a break from this show for a couple of months to start watching something new. But I anticipate picking Punky Brewster back up sometime in October.