‘Punky Brewster’ Review: A Cute Cast Sells Predictable Shenanigans
In 1984 audiences were enchanted by the bright- eyed — and quirkily named — Punky Brewster. Abandoned by her parents, the original NBC iteration of “Punky Brewster” followed the titular character, played with charm by Soleil Moon Frye, as she and her dog lived life with her foster dad, the crotchety but loving Henry (George Gaynes).
The original “Punky Brewster” ran for just four seasons with an abrupt cancellation in 1988. Though popular in the way most nostalgic 1980s series are today, the show never sustained a massive following like “Full House,” sticking in audiences’ minds more for its memorable title and bonkers “very special episodes,” including one about the dangers of being locked in a refrigerator. That being said, the series did connect with fans who had been through the foster system, remaining one of the only sitcoms to discuss foster care.
That being said, there is a question of just what audience “Punky Brewster” — Peacock’s new reboot/revival of the show — is actually aimed at. The show, somewhat like its original incarnation, follows a now-grown Punky (again played by Frye), who is living in Henry’s rent-controlled and amazingly boho apartment with her three children. She’s newly-divorced from her rocker ex, Travis (Freddie Prinze, Jr.) and strongly connects with a little girl named Izzy (Quinn Copeland), who reminds Punky a lot of her as a kid.
“Punky Brewster” will remind sitcom fans of the previous reincarnations of classic shows, most notably Netflix’s “Fuller House.” Like that series, “Punky” relies on both mom humor (complete with jokes about being out-of-touch and growing up in the ’80s) and the nostalgia of the original series, with just enough changes to avoid cries of outright copying its predecessor.
Oddly enough, the elements of “Punky Brewster” that work the best are the ones that feel directly transplanted from 1984, specifically Izzy’s integration into the family. Copeland’s performance is indicative of a bright future. Her Izzy is sassy, with a snap and a one-liner always at the ready, but when the script gives Copeland a chance to be dry it’s pure comedy. An episode wherein she works at a rummage sale at the home she used to live in culminates with her guilting a guy to give more money or else decide “which one of those two kids gets to eat tonight.”
When the series brings up more dramatic topics, like homelessness, Copeland’s reactions feel authentic and do far more to emphasize the seriousness of the situation than Punky’s mom routine of forcing her kids to sleep in the family SUV — complete with leather seats and moonroof — to make them appreciate how good they have it.
Evans Vestal Ward/Peacock
Frye has talked about loving Punky to this day, and her multiple attempts to bring this series back. Her admiration for the character shines through; she hasn’t lost an ounce of her “Punky power,” for sure. But watching this series — especially if you only have a casual interest in the original — it’s hard to connect how this series is specifically “Punky” or just any other forty-something mom trying to connect with her children. The entire series, especially in Punky’s plotline, just feels so generic.
This isn’t to say that Frye isn’t going full-tilt into the role, but you wonder what makes this series, specifically, Punky — short of the actress playing the character making continual references to the deceased Henry and exclaiming her catchphrase, “holy mackinoli.” All of the situations she sees herself in — aside from her back-and-forth grappling of reconnecting with her mother — are stocks in the sitcom trade. Her divorce has her wading back into the dating world, culminating in a rocky date with a geeky dad played lovingly by Seth Green.
The main thrust of the narrative, though, is her “will she or won’t she” relationship with her ex, Travis. Alongside Copeland, Prinze Jr. is wonderful. He isn’t directly ripped from the Rock 101 handbook, but instead is a modern dad with a rock star job struggling to find a way to balance the two. His chemistry opposite Frye is darling, but Prinze really finds his power opposite the child actors. An episode about Punky finding a joint in teenage daughter Hannah’s (Lauren Lindsey Donzis) room is a chance for Prinze’s character to look at the ways he’s changed and might not fit the rock world anymore.
The rest of the supporting cast works for the format, but they have about as much development as any typical sitcom character. Cherie Johnson returns as Punky’s best friend, Cherie, who gets to be the sounding board for Punky’s issues. Donzis, Noah Cottrell, and Oliver De Los Santos are also solid as Punky’s three children. De Los Santos, especially, gets a unique special episode as Punky and Travis wonder if he might be non-binary or trans.
There are certainly a few of these “Issue” episodes throughout “Punky Brewster,” and all are handled with tact (except the aforementioned homelessness episode.) There are also moments that feel like poor attempts at getting viewers through synergy, like when Punky takes Izzy to a WWE convention, including a five-minute showdown between Charlotte Flair and Alexa Bliss that practically has an “Only on USA” chyron below it.
In the end, “Punky Brewster” definitely has an uphill battle to stand out from the endless reboots. Compared to Peacock’s other revival, “Saved By the Bell,” this retread does feel toothless and safe. But if you’re looking for family entertainment with a dependable cast, this will work.
“Punky Brewster” starts streaming on Peacock on February 24.
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