In the mid to late-1980s, the titular character on “Punky Brewster” (played by Soleil Moon Frye) was a free-spirited, elementary school student coming of age while being raised by a foster father Henry, played by George Gaynes. Now, almost four decades later, Punky is a newly single mom experiencing a second coming-of-age when she bonds with young, free-spirited foster girl Izzy, played by Quinn Copeland, in Peacock’s continuation series of the same name.
“Really through Izzy’s character Punky finds so much of her Punky power again,” Frye, who also serves as executive producer on the new show tells Variety. “I feel like so many of us grow up and it’s so easy to forget that inner spark. So, to feel that coming back again and reigniting is such an amazing and incredible feeling for both me and for Punky.”
The first 10-episode season of Peacock’s “Punky Brewster” centers on Punky adjusting to raising her three kids after separating from her husband (Freddie Prinze Jr.) with her photography career and bringing Izzy into her home. As an adult who has been through the foster care system, Punky is able to reflect on her experiences and use them to not only help the children currently in the system, but also her friend Cherie (Cherie Johnson), who now works for Fenster Hall, the emergency shelter in which Punky once stayed.
“It was important for me that Cherie kept the same soul that she always had,” Johnson says, as well as “to challenge Cherie this time around because the original Cherie was so much who I [was]. It’s nice now that our writers have developed something that’s a little different from me as a woman. Cherie is a lot more professional than I expected her to be,” she continues, citing that the character has had “growing pains,” a “lot of life lessons” and “insecurities” that she tackled to get to where she is when the audience re-meets her.
In telling stories of fostering and adoption, executive producer Jim Armogida notes that he and his brother, executive producer Steve Armogida, wanted to “destigmatize” the system, as well as “talk about it in a very real way and not gloss over the difficulties.” Over the course of the season, part of Punky’s arc will be going through that process once again, only from the parental point of view, but the focus will be more heavily on the personal relationships between characters.
“Izzy is so uniquely her own person and at the same time reminds Punky so much of herself,” says Frye. “I think that it’s so beautiful to see those generations because you get to see how we all are extensions of each other and also how we all own our own uniqueness. From her clothes to her personality to her sincerity, she is 1,000% her own being that also ignites in Punky that inner child.”
When the Armogidas first set out to write their version of “Punky Brewster,” they admit they thought a lot about their audience, focusing primarily on those who were young kids when the original series was on and are now raising families of their own, just like Punky. So although the show features a talented young cast including Copeland, Noah Cottrell, Oliver De Los Santos and Lauren Lindsey Donzis, who will have storylines centered on what it is like to be a child today, Punky is once again “the central character,” Steve Armogida points out.
“We took great care in keeping her character, but growing it into an adult. She’s now a mom — she’s got Henry’s role, a little bit — but Punky still does things the way younger Punky Brewster would have done them as well. She’s strong, independent; a lot of it is [that] she goes against the grain sometimes. She’s still got different colored shoes!” Jim Armogida adds. “One of the things that was so great about the original show was that Punky was such a great role model for girls and boys, and we wanted to keep that going with her as an adult.”
The team behind the new show “looked for opportunities to” sprinkle in “plenty of echoes, homages [and] Easter eggs” to the original series, as well as to keep Henry’s memory alive, “to give the original fans something that was special for them,” but also because “it’s natural that [if] Henry is a part of Punky’s life and her history and her character and, if you’re writing her character, he’ll come up,” notes Steve Armogida. (Gaynes passed away in 2016 and therefore could not be a part of the new series beyond references and photographs.)
One major change from the original series to the new one, though, is that only the new premiere episode was filmed in front of a live, studio audience. As much as the energy of such a crowd can be essential for sitcoms, the COVID-19 pandemic required “Punky Brewster” to adjust how it filmed the majority of its episodes.
Losing the live feedback of a studio audience didn’t cause the Armogidas to adjust how they wrote scripts or figure out if jokes were landing, but the new health and safety protocols limited how often they could shoot outside of their soundstage, as well as affected the number of people who could be on set, let alone in a scene, together at one time. This meant that for a special second episode story in which Punky gathers her whole family in her SUV to “teach them a lesson” in the a very unique way that only Punky can, each actor had to sit individually in the car to deliver their lines, being composited in together in post-production.
When faced with such complicated technical work, some other shows may have scrapped the story, but “Punky Brewster” found a unique way to still carry out the Armogidas’ vision.
“We wrote it before COVID hit, and it was such a big part of the story we thought [that] if we did it another way it wouldn’t be as impactful,” Steve Armogida shares. “There are challenges you get up against and our way is just, ‘How do we do it?’ We thought we’d figure it out.”
Clearly the scrappy spirit of Punky herself is alive and well behind-the-scenes, as well as on-screen.
“Punky Brewster” streams Feb. 25 on Peacock.