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Punky Brewster - Season One
Credit Shout! Factory with bringing this slice of '80s nostalgia to the masses, hot on the heels of their outstanding box set for "Freaks and Geeks". Though not nearly as in-depth as the F&G collection (mainly due to the smaller demand), this four-disc collection brings the first season of this childhood favorite home, with a decent assortment of bonus features and a quality level that's better than when it was first seen. With 22 episodes of saccharine-laced TV to enjoy, there's plenty to satisfy the most ardent Punky fan.
For those who didn't make it to NBC on Sunday nights, Punky Brewster (Soleil Moon-Frye) was abandoned by her mother at a supermarket in Chicago, and, with her faithful companion, Brandon the Wonder Dog, found shelter in an empty apartment. Living on her own, she befriends Cherie (Cherie Johnson), who lives in the building with her grandmother (the late Betty Johnson). Eventually, she is found by the building manager, Henry Warnimont (George Gaynes, of Police Academy fame). A lonely man, he befriends Punky, and despite the generation gaps between them, he takes her in, taking legal guardianship of her. In most anyone's eyes, Punky lived a tough life until this point, but the show doesn't treat her any better after that. In the first season alone, she's threatened with a return to the orphanage, boarding school, new foster parents and the death of her dog. Life is not easy for Punky. Luckily for her, she has the right outlook, and faces adversity and the troubles it brings.
From the first menu, when an '80s staple, the melodic, catchy theme song, greets you, to the last credit sequence, this disc transports you to a simpler time. There are references to the pop culture of the time all over these episodes, which, though now dated, bring back memories quickly. One exchange in particular, made me laugh, as Henry says that his new camcorder will "connect to my new VCR." Cherie and Punky quickly reply, "What's a VCR?" It's interesting to travel back to a time when VCRs weren't as common as shoes. In this season, you also get to see some future "stars" when they were first starting out, including Robyn Lively (Teen Witch), Jeremy Miller (Growing Pains), Chad Allen (Our House), Danny Ponce (The Hogan Family) and several others. Two guest appearances by Andy Gibb were highlights as well.
Of course, this show wasn't a piece of art. The writing is very hokey, with obvious plots, heartstring-tugging drama and big, broad comedy, but it's better than most efforts from the time. The set design is top notch, though it has an odd stage-play feel to it, with dark shadows behind characters and an emptiness around their voices, while the cinematography has actual style to it, with push-ins, pans and plenty of post-production work. Plus, the show attempted to reach the adult audience forced to watch with the kids, with underlying sexuality in the adult dialogue, interracial couples not played for laughs and old-school comedy, including wordless scenes. Sure, it's a formulaic sitcom, but it certainly wasn't the same old thing. This show tried something new and hit a nerve, mainly due to its solid cast, especially Soleil Moon-Frye, who sold the role to the audience. While some would call it schmaltz, I prefer to see it as sweet and wholesome.
Packed in a slipcased four-tray gatefold package that's lined with full-color shots of the cast, there are 22 episodes here, though six are just fifteen minutes long (NBC was often preempting Punky with football, so they produced shorter episodes to make room) and two are actually hour long two-parters that aired on two nights. The episodes are spread out over four discs, with seven on disc one (four 15-minute episodes), seven on the second platter (two at 15 minutes), four episodes on the third (one, an hour long) and five, including the hour-long season finale two-parter, on the last DVD. Each episode can be selected to watch separately (the 15-minute episodes are paired in twos, as they would be seen when not interrupted) or you can select the Play All option to watch the entire disc. As a nice touch, each episode is preceded by the original NBC Productions logo, which looks like an old school filmstrip.
The episodes break down as follows:
<•> Punky Finds A Home, Parts 1, 2 and 3 - This three-piece story arc introduces us to the four main characters, as well as the inherent conflict between flighty Punky and serious Henry. Henry's attempts to become Punky's foster father are challenged by his age and income.
<•> Lost And Found/Punky Gets Her Own Room - The first part of this pair of short episodes shows Punky again suffering the pain of abandonment, as she can't find Henry at the grocery store. The second half tells the story of Punky's bedroom, which was, at one time, Henry's study. This episode introduced a new partially animated opening, that was almost entirely dropped by the next week.
<•> Walk Pool/Gone Fishing - Henry discovers the joy of fatherhood, when he has to walk Punky's friends to school, and bonds with Punky when he takes her and her friends fishing. The second half introduces snooty Margaux (Ami Foster) and semi-retarded Allen (Casey Ellison), who become regulars as friends of Punky.
<•> Take Me Out To The Ballgame - Henry and Punky attempt to take in a Chicago Cubs game, but are thwarted by a scalper who sells them bad tickets.
<•> Parents Night - Margaux makes Punky think foster parents don't care, and she's hurt when he can't come to Parents Night at her school.
<•> Go To Sleep/A Visit To The Doctor - Punky's inability to sleep interrupts the opera Henry's watching on TV, while she loses Henry's lucky nickel during a trip to the doctor for her booster shot.
<•> Miss Adorable - The girls compete in a beauty pageant, with Punky hoping to make Henry proud, thinking that her mom left her because she wasn't proud. Andy Gibb guests as the host of the pageant.
<•> Dog Dough Afternoon - After her loan application is unsuccessful, Punky and pals turn to grooming dogs--secretly--to help Henry pay the bills.
<•> Bye Bye My - Henry attempts to fool Punky, after he threw away her old doll, My. It doesn't work.
<•> Yes Punky, There Is A Santa Claus - With Punky's first Christmas without her mother approaching, Henry tries to make the best of it, by playing Santa for her school. Punky's only wish is to find her mom, and with some help, Henry tries to find her. This was a two-part episode on TV.
<•> Punky In The Record Business - Andy Gibb is back, and this time, he's Punky's piano instructor. Punky convinces him to record his music, but he falls in with a shady record exec. (Note: Online, many episode guides list this one as "Play It Again, Punky," but considering Shout! Factory's track record, I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.)
<•> Henry Falls In Love, Parts 1 and 2 - Henry meets a rich woman who was his high school sweetheart and falls in love with her all over again. This threatens Punky's relationship with Henry, since his new flame wants to send her to boarding school. She runs away, and when Henry finds her, he has to choose between her and marriage.
<•> My Aged Valentine - A flashforward episode, Punky sees her lonely future when she refuses to be a boy's valentine.
<•> I Love You Brandon - When Brandon gets in trouble with Henry, Punky takes him for a walk, where he's hit by a car.
<•> Punky Brewster's Workout - Henry buys an expensive new video camera, which Punky and her friends use to make a work-out video. They break it, but Henry is convinced it's his fault when he falls on it.
<•> Gals and Dolls - A "Cabbage Patch Doll"-like frenzy causes a rift between Cherie, Margaux and Punky, as well as among their parents.
<•> Fenster Hall - A two-parter season finale, these episodes tried to spin off a new show, but it didn't work. The plot doesn't have much Punky, as a young tough has to choose between the streets and the orphanage.
The episodes look better than I've ever seen them, and considering the improvements that have been made in television broadcasts over the past 20 years, it's unlikely anyone ever saw these episodes look so good, unless they were watching the master tapes. The episodes are presented in their original full-frame aspect ratio, with the obvious signs of age, including grain and light imbalance. The video is encoded at an average of 6.5 Mbps The colors are bright and crisp, though any post-production work is very obvious, due to the limitations at the time.
The audio is good, reproducing the original stereo soundtrack in Dolby Digital 2.0, encoded at 192kbs. The laughtrack is very heavy, which it was in the original broadcasts, while the incidental music and stings come through clear. There's little to no noise in the track, an impressive feat considering the age.
Shout! Factory did a nice job in this department, but there's two major disappointments, namely the absences of Soleil Moon Frye and George Gaynes from the bonus materials. I'm going to guess they either chose to not participate, or priced themselves out of Shout! Factory's budget. It's unlikely they were simply forgotten or left out. Thankfully, Cherie Johnson and Ami Foster, Cherie and Margaux, respectively, were on board. On the first disc, they do a joint interview, where they reminisce over making the show and give tidbits about annoying Johnny Carson, gambling and having crushes on Andy Gibb. They also share some thoughts on their fellow cast members and growing up with Punky.
Also on Disc One is a chat with the creator and executive producer of the show, David W. Duclon. His thoughts on the decline of sitcoms in the early '80s, eerily mirror the state of TV today, while he hits on several topics including the changing family structure in the '80s, the impact Punky had on children and the importance of Soleil Moon Frye to the role. It's nothing earth-shattering, but it's worth giving a look at it.
Shout! Factory went all out here, and on each disc is an episode of the spin-off cartoon, "It's Punky Brewster!" Encoded with the same quality of the live-action episodes, these cartoons focus on the kids, and their adventures with an orphaned mystical creature named Glomer. Glomer was apparently the inspiration for Jar Jar Binks, with his misplaced grammar and ridiculous accent. On this disc are "Pretty Ugly" and "Glomer's Story." It's a show strictly for the fans, but it does have each character on the show reprising their voice roles.
Disc Two features another cartoon, with "Growing Pains" and "Double Your Punky", as well as a solo interview with Cherie Johnson. This time out, she explains how she got the role, her affection for the character and her career since. Suffice to say, without giving anything away, it's all about who you know.
"Punky Wise and Pound Foolish" and "Christmas in July" are the cartoon bonuses on the third disc, along with an interview with Ami Foster. The interview covers the same ground as the talk with Cherie, discussing her career, her memories of Hollywood and what Punky means to her.
A final cartoon on the final disc includes "Call Me Ms." and "Caught in the Act." Writer Barry Vigon wraps up the interviews with a chat about the motivation behind the show, what it was like working with Soleil, thinking like a child and the show's enduring appeal. The interviews are nice, informative and well produced, but, as a fan of screen-specific commentaries, it would have been nice to have at least one per disc. DVDs like The Goonies and Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory show how much fun it is when child actors get back together to do commentaries on their work as adults. This DVD was a great chance to do just that. Unfortunately, a chance missed, though understood, considering the likely budget for this project.
Shout! Factory does it again with this set, giving a show that would have ended up on a shelf, forgotten, into a show that will end up on many shelves, and remembered fondly. While it would have been nice to hear from the main two characters (maybe in Season Two?), the package we have is more than most could have expected. Now they just have to get the rest of those great '80s sitcoms, like "Growing Pains" and "Silver Spoons," on plastic. If you enjoyed this show, or simply enjoy '80s nostalgia, this time-capsule of a DVD is well worth the affordable cost, and my advice is aimed at you. For the rest of you, it's a rental.
Francis Rizzo III is a native Long Islander, where he works in academia. In his spare time, he enjoys watching hockey, writing and spending time with his wife, daughter and puppy.Follow him on Twitter
*The Reviewer's Bias section is an attempt to help readers use the review to its best effect. By knowing where the reviewer's biases lie on the film's subject matter, one can read the review with the right mindset.