Spoilers ahead. This is a Punky Brewster Season 2 review, so heartache and despair are also ahead. Reader discretion is advised.
Returning for a second season in the Fall of 1985, Punky Brewster is the story of how an abandoned little girl came to live with a childless and unmarried senior citizen, Henry Warnimont, a photographer and building manager. Punky warms Henry’s frosty aged heart and in turn, Henry gives her love, stability, and a grandfather figure’s wisdom.
Season 1 focused on the unlikely way that Punky and Henry came together as well as the difficult adjustment of their lives together. In the follow-up season, though, the Punky-Henry relationship is well settled and the stories focus more broadly on Punky’s friendships, her life at school, and the nature of her surrounding community and society as a whole. Of course, Punky Brewster being the show that it is, the writers did take one more hard look at Punky’s situation with Henry and gave us a five-part story arc of instability created by bad fortune.
Season 2 – like the first one – deals with stories that are far more tragic and traumatizing than they are light-hearted and fun. Apparently, it was not enough that the character of Punky Brewster have a distressing backstory. It was important to the writers that her day-to-day also be fraught with darkness and palpable danger. Let me just say, if the goal was to create a show that was deeply upsetting for its audience of mostly small children, season two was wildly successful. Here are just a few of the unsettling stories from this show’s second season:
- Punky Brewster is beaten to a pulp by the school bully (we see Punky dragged into a bathroom and the camera stays out in the hallway while we hear the beating occur on the other side of the door.)
- Punky and her friends get lost in a large forested park.
- Punky and her friends confront AN ACTUAL DEMON in a cave (Punky’s friends and her dog Brandon are all murdered and turned into demons themselves before Punky manages to bring them all back.) This episode also includes a completely separate fight (with Punky wielding a tomahawk as a weapon) against a gigantic spider.
- Punky is pulled inside her neighbor’s apartment, and is taken captive, by a frightening older woman who HATES children. Punky manages to escape – only she does so without Brandon (Henry has to go help her retrieve the dog sometime later.) Later in the episode, Punky finds this same neighbor near death inside her apartment after the older woman collapsed while alone.
- Punky learns that one of her new neighbors is actually a kidnapping victim when she sees the girl’s picture on a milk carton. The girl (a young Candace Cameron) hides from what we learn is her father until she is put in touch with her mother.
- Punky worries about a local serial killer… spree killing in her neighborhood. She is convinced that Henry will be the next victim. The bodies pile up as the episode goes on. No arrests are ever made. The status of the killer is left open-ended when the episode ends.
- Punky’s friend Cherie suffocates inside an abandoned refrigerator during a game of hide and seek. Punky and her friend Margaux perform CPR to save Cherie’s life while Henry and their other friend, Allen, watch helplessly and blame themselves for not knowing CPR.
- Henry’s photography studio burns down, ruining him financially. The stress from the loss leads to Henry’s hospitalization from a bleeding ulcer. While he is hospitalized, a social worker takes Punky away from Henry and places her first in Fenster Hall, and then with other foster parents. The foster parents are wealthy but uncaring.
- Punky and her class watch The Challenger space shuttle explode. Punky in particular is deeply effected because she has always wanted to be an astronaut.
Read all of those descriptions again and do it while reminding yourself that this show was targeted at an audience of children between the ages of two and eleven years old.
If you have read through my episode-by-episode recaps and reactions, then you are well aware that I am borderline angry that this show even exists. Why did NBC feel the need to make a show that overtly attacked the emotional well-being of its young audience? Why was the attack so unrelenting? Why was there not a national outcry against this show? (Rather than have an outcry, Punky Brewster somehow grew in popularity and even became a cartoon series.)
Subject matter notwithstanding, it was not all bad, though.
T.K. Carter’s addition to the cast, as Mike Fulton, was a ray of levity in this dark murder cave of pre-adolescent despair. He consistently managed to find plausible humor while explaining tough things to the show’s protagonist and her friends. He often intervened on behalf of Punky with Henry and the world around her, too. In turn, Punky helped Mike to locate his own mother (“The Search.“) T.K. Carters performance as Mike, reacting to meeting his mother, for the first time, is one of my favorite moments from the entirety of season two. It was genuinely touching and it felt authentic.
Susie Garrett’s performance as Mrs. Betty Johnson was also a consistent favorite of mine. She might be my favorite comedic actor on the show. Garrett delivers “I am dumbfounded” moments with perfection and her consistently teasing Henry is always funny because there is so much warmth beneath it. My favorite Mrs. Johnson moment of the season was her reaction to meeting Buzz Aldrin. She was funny, overwhelmed, and embarrassed, all at the same time, and it came across as truly genuine.
George Gaynes and Soleil Moon Frye were once again terrific this season. Gaynes’ portrayal of Henry evolved from cantankerous loner, adjusting to sharing his life and his literal space, to a doting almost grandfatherly figure. He transitioned from one version of the character, to the other, seamlessly. It felt to me like a natural progression for someone in his circumstances. My favorite Henry moment during the second season was probably the way he took care of Allen during “Cherie Lifesaver.” Rather than allow Punky’s friend to blame himself for what almost happened to Cherie, Henry recognized that feeling settling onto the shoulders of the little boy and he lifted that burden from Allen and placed it on himself. That’s not something Henry would have done during season one.
Soleil’s Punky continued to be a bright light in dark circumstances in season two. She was still terrific at drawing both tears and laughter from the audience. I’m just genuinely astounded at her talent given her age when this show was made. If I had to pick a favorite Punky moment from Season 2, I would probably land on the way she befriended and cared for the school janitor in “The Gift.” She not only lifted up the woman, she helped everyone to see her differently and more positively. It was a quintessential Punky Brewster moment and it highlighted who the character really is.
Punky’s friends all had some great moments in Season Two. I loved that Cherie was the first of Punky’s friends to stand next to her and against the school bully. I loved Ami Foster’s hard-to-love Margaux taking charge with Cherie’s CPR and again taking charge in Fenster Hall to help Punky sneak out to visit Henry. Margaux’s career day moment was also one of the funniest things to happen on this show. I thought Casey Ellison’s Allen had one of the best dramatic scenes of the entire show to this point when he apologized to Cherie for not knowing how to save her, when she was revived after nearly suffocating. I also thought Allen had some really great moments bravely defending Punky to his misogynist older male friends during “Girls Will Be Boys.”
Season two finally gave us a legitimate effort to find Punky’s mother. They did not succeed, at all. I will just copy/paste might thoughts from season one on this topic because I feel as though they still hold true:
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?
I crafted the Punky Power Hypothesis, wherein I theorized that Punky grew up in a secret government facility for the uniquely gifted. My theory is that “Punky Power” is a tangible power – primarily manifesting itself in the manipulation of the hearts of those around the girl. Punky may have been unable to find her mom because the place where she grew up technically does not exist.
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.
The second season of this show gave us an episode specifically focused on finding Susan Brewster. Henry is unable to do so. On the other hand, Henry was able to complete the seemingly more difficult task of tracking down Mike Fulton’s birth mother. Henry’s research skills should not be in question. What is the hold-up then?
I provided some evidence after season one that Punky has special abilities.
- 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 also 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.
Did we see a continuation of those powers in Season 2? Yes.
- Punky was told by a Native American tribal leader that she was born to confront a cave demon. She meets the ghost of the last person to challenge the cave demon, Princess Moon, and the previous challenger looks exactly like present day Punky. Punky is told that she has the supernatural ability to defeat the demon creature because of her inherent inner goodness. Punky then wields a magical tomahawk and defeats the actual demon using the power of love.
- In less dramatic fashion, Punky transformed a frightening shut-in neighbor into an openly friendly dancing-with-Henry neighbor.
- Punky rallies an entire school against a bully.
- Punky is able to convince Mike Fulton’s birth mother to share the secret of his birth – after decades of secrecy – and to then go meet Mike, too.
- Punky warms the heart of her temporary foster father, Mr. Buckworth, such that he stands up to his tyrant wife for the first time in twenty years and returns her to Henry.
- Punky is able to attract the attention and help of even celebrities – including famed boxer Marvin Hagler and NASA astronaut Buzz Aldrin.
The biggest piece of evidence here, obviously, is the cave demon episode. But the rest all fits the pattern. Punky Power is supernaturally able to influence the hearts and minds of the people around her and bend them toward the direction of love.
Could Punky be a specially gifted child who either escaped or was turned loose from a special government facility that she cannot adequately describe to people? It seems like the most plausible answer to me.
Did season two point us again toward Punky’s fascination with outer space? Yes again. We got an entire episode centered around her love of space. Buzz Aldrin even went to the trouble of coming to her apartment to talk to her about the space program. Why would he do that? 1) He might have just been a really nice guy, or 2) He recognized Punky’s name – from some top secret shenanigans Buzz was privy to – when a random Chicago school teacher called him and mentioned her. You can decide which makes more sense to you.
Am I working on a Cherie Johnson theory? Yes I am.
- Cherie Johnson, the actress, shares her name with her character.
- “Maxine” Johnson – portrayed by Cherie Johnson – appears in the show Family Matters a couple of years after Punky Brewster ends – and her new show is also set in Chicago.
- Family Matters – like Punky Brewster – is home to a uniquely gifted child (Steve Urkel.)
That’s not a lot to go on, really. Could Cherie Johnson be the connection point between our world and the TV worlds she inhabits? Maybe. Or maybe TV writers just think she makes sense on shows set in Chicago, adjacent to the supernaturally gifted, and that she needs a character name similar to her real one.
Is it strange that a future TGIF co-star appeared on this season of Punky Brewster? I suppose not – even if that show, Full House, had its own cross-over episode involving Steve Urkel.
Were there other supernaturally powerful kids on TV in that era and in that general geography? Yes. Zack Morris of Good Morning Miss Bliss / Saved By the Bell was initially based in Indianapolis. He and only some of his friends ended up in California for Saved by the Bell. Zack, you might remember, somehow manages to control both time and space. Interestingly, Soleil Moon Frye ended up on Saved by the Bell. She also did a long stint on Sabrina, the Teenage Witch with the supernaturally powerful Sabrina.
Is the more modern Stranger Things, also set in the 1980s, a clue? That show involves supernaturally gifted kids, a secret government lab in Indiana, and at least one of them escaping to Chicago.
There’s… something… here and my intuition tells me I can start unraveling it by pulling on the Cherie Johnson thread. Maybe I’ll figure it all out in Season 3.