‘Punky Brewster’ Revival Banks on Joyful Nostalgia: TV Review

This pandemic has people everywhere in a funk. But as vaccinations are rolled out and hope looms on the horizon, is a trailer-touting “funky Punky” the nostalgic lift that frazzled parents, sentimental fans, and a new wave of younger viewers need? Peacock certainly seems to think so.

The 10-part “Punky Brewster” revival dropped Feb. 25 on the streaming service, which has already seen early success in the nostalgia department with its “Saved By the Bell” reimagining. However while the latter project, which was recently renewed for a second season, leans heavily on new characters and offers only glimpses of beloved figures past, “Punky Brewster” remains all about its protagonist. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

That storyline is one of several threads set up in the premiere. In addition to learning how to be single again, Punky is raising three children—her daughter Hannah (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) and her adopted sons Diego (Noah Cottrell) and Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos). There’s also a golden retriever named Brandy, who may or may not be related to Punky’s original pup, Brandon. Travis is also constantly in the picture despite the separation, leading to a whole new kind of normal as far as modern families go. But the biggest driver is Punky’s decision by the end of episode one to take in Izzy (Quinn Copeland), the foster child from Fenster Hall that Punky’s BFF Cherie (Cherie Johnson) introduces her to.

While some fans may find the lack of depth in such storytelling disappointing, the approach is in line with what the original 1980s series first presented. The original “Punky Brewster”—which tackled topics like the Challenger Space Shuttle explosion and the dangers of playing hide-and-seek in a retro refrigerator—sometimes aired in 15-minute installments in order to keep a consistent, post-football schedule on Sunday nights for eager younger viewers. In that vein the family friendly revival can be seen as a way to briefly introduce tough topics to families and children, creating a launchpad for further conversations after the end credits roll.

Where that approach perhaps misses the mark is in its failure to branch out beyond the family and Cherie. Most of the action takes place in the main apartment set, and although the characters venture out to Fenster Hall, a bar, a convention, or at one point to a strange escape room, the cameras don’t follow these children to school as they did when Punky and Cherie were in their younger years. That decision could be in part due to filming restrictions in the coronavirus era, plus there are four times as many children to track in the immediate family as there were in the original. But not having supporting child-characters or teachers weigh in on some of the issues presented is a missed opportunity for even more perspective and world-building.

Still, there’s plenty of original Punky charm to go around. Cynics may cringe at an adult woman boasting about her “Punky power” years later, but Frye’s pure commitment to joy (not to mention physical comedy) is as infectious as ever. Jokes about wearing mismatching sneakers or drinking orange juice out of the container are perhaps trite—especially against the show’s laugh track—but other references (“holy macanoli,” jamming out to “Maniac”) are subtle and used sparingly.

That’s all to say that while this show isn’t exactly new or ground-breaking as so many savvy viewers perhaps expect a comedy to be these days, Punky’s rainbow-lens goggles and penchant for finding the joy in life may be the fare that ragged families everywhere need right about now.

“Punky Brewser” debuts Feb. 25 on Peacock.

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