Top Five Times Punky Brewster Traumatized Me

It’s The Friday List ya’ll! Even though it’s Sunday morning. It’s gonna be like that sometimes. Punky Brewster was a sitcom that ran from 1984 to 1986. It was mostly an unremarkable show, a 1980s take on Little Orphan Annie in purple-dyed denim and pigtails. And yet, for a subset of us, it rests at the foundation of our memories, airing at the time we first experienced long-term memory, self-awareness, fear and empathy. It fucked us up.

I’m going to riff on a joke from my Twitter BFF William Bruce West — Punky Brewster was a non-stop Special Episode. It was basically like This Is Us for toddlers. And now I’m going to recount The Top Five Times Punky Brewster Traumatized Me.

The Refrigerator Episode. I have a suggestion for historians who aren’t quite sure how to label the early-80s babies who aren’t Generation X or Y. Generation Refrigerator Episode. I don’t have to say anything else about it. We could just take swigs of hard liquor, look each other wearily in the eye, and say “Refrigerator Episode,” and everything is said.

So really, I’m not recounting this for informational purposes. I’m recounting this because I’m still processing it. Punky and Cherie are playing hardcore hide and seek. Cherie hides in an abandoned refrigerator in the alley. It’s a great spot, because no one can find her. They give up, and she’s trapped for hours. She basically suffocates and dies. The end.

The Very First Fucking Episode. Let’s just do bullet points:

  • Father leaves, depressed mother abandons her in strip-mall parking lot
  • Homeless child is discovered by kindly old man, he takes her in. She cleans his house in a desperate effort to please him. Accidentally throws away a picture of his dead wife
  • He’s so furious, he turns the filthy street urchin into DCFS
  • This plot line drags out for two more To Be Continued episodes, holy fucking shit
  • Dumped off at the orphanage, Punky dramatically ESCAPES out the fire escape
  • We were four years old and RIVETED as we tuned in every week to see if this random stranger was going to adopt Punky

The episode where my dad left and my mom sat at the dining room table crying while she warmed up chicken nuggets in the oven for us. She said we were still loved and dad would still come visit on the weekends and nothing was going to change. And I guess that’s why I was really into television, just to zone out and — oh fuck, the Challenger exploded and everyone died, and Jesus Fucking Christ I wouldn’t have even heard about this devastating event if there wasn’t A Very Special Episode about it.

Punky Brewster was constantly secondary-traumatizing me all of the goddamn time. The episode is called ACCIDENTS HAPPEN. Like when I accidentally spilled my glass of Juicy Juice, or accidentally caused my parents to divorce — OOPS THE CHALLENGER “ACCIDENTALLY” EXPLODED AND EVERYONE DIED.

The drunk driving episode, the drugs episode, the episode where Henry’s photography studio — his only source of income — BURNS DOWN. Seriously Punky, this shit is really heavy for a toddler. I can’t even recount what happened in these episodes, I’m literally just shaking right now.

Her Entire Post-Punky career just breaks me because I know this is real life, and we all got to cobble together a living. Like wow, our hopes and dreams are never going to happen, so you better just get a gig and be happy.

  • Guest appearances on Saved by The Bell and The Wonder Years, nine-years-old, already discarded and touring the oldies nostalgia circuit
  • Starred as Becky Hanson in 1996 Erotic-Thriller Mind Games
  • Voice of Jade in direct-to-DVD release of Bratz: Starrin & Stylin
  • Botox
  • Sells mail order organic baby onesies on her website for $16 each
  • Okay Punky, I’m poor and my kids wore those $3 Walmart-line Garanimals onesies like they were Fenster Hall rejects. Thanks a lot.


3 thoughts on “Top Five Times Punky Brewster Traumatized Me

  1. Punky was my guilty pleasure when I was a first-grader. I must’ve blocked out the trauma–I don’t remember any of these episodes except for the refrigerator one. Yeah, fuck that episode. It ruined the Indiana Jones Crystal Skull movie for me. In the theater I wanted to scream, “NO!! DON’T HIDE IN THE FRIDGE, INDY!! YOU’RE DOOMED!!” Okay, maybe the movie itself ruined the movie, but the mental scars of Punky are still etched deep in my subconscious.

  2. YAY! I got me a shout-out!

    I see you skipped the 87-88 first-run syndication year. The only reason I bring that up is because it’s clear that somebody had “notes”. It’s MUCH cheerier than the NBC run, even if none of the decisions make any sense. For example, Henry sells his successful photo studio and opens a teen hangout he names Punky’s Place. Sure, because a 70 year old photographer knows exactly what an 80s teen was looking for in a hangout spot. I hope the bank clerk who approved that small business loan was fired.

    As time goes by, I find myself more and more fascinated by the behind the scenes aspects of the series. There’s enough there for a Netflix documentary or something. For example, Punky was a real person. She was based on a childhood classmate of then-NBC head Brandon Tartikoff. He actually had to get her permission to use her name, and she later appears on the show as a teacher in an episode. Also, Punky’s dog, Brandon, was named after Tartikoff. It’s interesting to me because usually a show is made by, say, Warner Bros, and then picked up by a network like ABC or CBS. In Punky’s case, though, it was basically like NBC created it in a lab for themselves, and it hit all the right emotional notes for the time. I still think of how involved I was in the Finster Hall Saga which kicked off when Henry’s studio burned down and Punky found herself back in the orphanage. I was only, say, 5, and had never known such suspense!

    Plus, the impact it had on me is that I’ve always loved when a little girl has a ton of personality and marches to the beat of her own drum. My oldest is the girliest girl who ever girled, but when I have to dress her, I’ll wholeheartedly admit that I use Punky as a style guide.

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