“Punky Brewster: Christmas Shoplifting” (1985)

Perhaps predicting that a lot of people born in the 70s would grow up to have complicated relationships with their families, there was a puzzling trend in 80s TV shows and movies in which children were, through largely implausible circumstances, raised by individuals other than their birth parents. In most cases, the surrogate parent had virtually no experience raising children, but together, with love and patience, they learn what it means to be a family, often with the adult learning just as much, if not more, from the child.

No “I hate my real parents and wish I could live with someone else” fantasy fulfillment show tugged the heartstrings with more brutal efficiency than Punky Brewster. The titular character, an adorable hobo clown abandoned by her mother at a shopping mall, squats in an apartment building managed by Henry Warnimont, a grouchy old man who, as illustrated in the opening credits, literally steps over homeless people laying in the street. He takes Punky in, and quickly warms to this human Raggedy Ann doll, who seems to voice no other wants or needs than to be loved, and exhibits an angelic selflessness not usually found in eight year-olds.

I watched Punky Brewster. I couldn’t tell you a single thing about a single episode (luckily, someone wrote an exhaustively detailed episode guide on Wikipedia), but I remember watching it, every Sunday evening, usually at my grandparents’ house. While this isn’t quite a Berenstain/Berenstein situation, I do recall being younger than I actually was when this show premiered. It was very much geared towards the ten and under set, when kids are still guileless enough to believe that there’s no problem that can’t be solved by either opening a lemonade stand or having a heart to heart conversation. I wasn’t under ten, though. I was twelve, and I didn’t stop watching it until it moved into syndication, when I was nearly in high school. I have no reasonable explanation for it, except perhaps because my parents’ marriage was imploding, and I was drawn to warm, gooey sitcoms where families always hashed out their differences in twenty-five minutes or less, and were always better and stronger for it. I probably knew then than the average family sitcom was in no way a reflection of reality, but a little fantasy never hurt anyone.

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Season two’s “Christmas Shoplifting” opens with Punky (Soleil-Moon Frye) writing out her Christmas gift list, which appears to be several pages long. However, the saintly street urchin explains to Henry (George Gaynes) that it’s not a list of things that she wants, but a list of people for whom she wants to purchase gifts, including the garbage man and the bagger at the local grocery store, all of whom are her “friends.” Henry talks her down to buying gifts for just a few people, giving her the princely sum of $5 for each gift. While shopping at the local mall, Punky runs out of money before she gets a chance to buy Henry’s gift. She spots Henry admiring a cashmere scarf, and overhears him saying that he can’t afford to buy the scarf for himself, as he’s planning on buying a “special present” for Punky.

With crack timing, Punky’s weaselly classmate, Richmond (played by Peter Billingsley, who two years earlier nearly shot his eye out in A Christmas Story), appears, and explains that he can afford to buy expensive gifts for his family thanks to the ol’ five finger discount. His shoplifting technique is hilariously clumsy–it seems to consist mostly of exclaiming out loud  how much he wishes he could buy an item, then dropping that item into a shopping bag in full view of everyone around him–but it seems to be working so far.

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The virtuous Punky proves surprisingly easy to talk into stealing, though her frantic flailing as she tries to shove the scarf Henry wants into a bag is proof that she’s not a born criminal. Nevertheless, she almost manages to get away with it, until she runs into her favorite teacher, Mike, because apparently everybody Punky knows goes Christmas shopping on the exact same day, at the exact same time, and at the exact same shopping center (in Chicago!) as her. Though Punky carries on like Billy Hayes at the airport in Midnight Express, Mike (played by T.K. Carter) doesn’t seem to notice that anything is amiss. In her haste to flee the scene of the crime, however, Punky accidentally switches bags with Mike, leaving him with the stolen scarf. Mike is soon caught, and hauled away by the police.

Sadly lacking family or friends, Mike calls Henry to bail him out of jail. Luckily, it’s the kind of laidback jail that lets little girls enter the holding cell area by themselves. Punky, all big puppy dog eyes, biting her bottom lip and emoting like a character in a Charlie Chaplin movie, explains to Mike what happened. Mike, still imprisoned, mind you (and with Al Molinaro wearing a Santa suit as a cellmate), takes the time to patiently explain to Punky why shoplifting is bad. He’s only momentarily put out–after all, what teacher doesn’t find himself wrongfully arrested for a crime one of his students committed? He encourages Henry to go easy on Punky, which he does, grounding her for just a month and banning her from television for two weeks. That’s a pretty softball punishment for stealing–I once shoplifted some magazines from a 7-11, and my mother still brought it up more than a decade later.

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Everything you need to know about Punky Brewster can be summed up in the fact that, in lieu of a punchline, often the camera cuts to a reaction shot from Punky’s dog, Brandon. Like in my review of the “Bicycle Man” episode of Diff’rent Strokes, it’s a bit unfair to review with jaded adult eyes a TV show that was clearly meant for young children. But man, watching this is like being beaten over the head with a sack full of teddy bears. I applaud any parent who slogged through it week after week because their kids wanted to watch it, and hope that they’re rewarded with flowers and fully loaded Applebee’s gift cards every Mother and Father’s Day.

Punky and her pals come off as sort of modern day Little Rascals, scampering around largely unattended in what’s supposed to be inner city Chicago, and all the villains have Dickensian character names, like “Simon Chillings”  and “Garth Goobler.” Both common tropes in children’s media, combined with Punky’s Godspell wardrobe they add a welcome bit of quirk to what’s really just a flipside of Diff’rent Strokes. This too mostly involves an impossibly cute child actor hamboning her way through one “important message” after another, all of which impact her life just enough to, in true sitcom fashion, never be mentioned again. In addition to shoplifting, Punky learned about adoption, the importance of booster shots, teen runaways, bullying, cheating, the mentally handicapped, missing children, serial killers (!!!!), feminism, the Challenger disaster, obesity, divorce, elder rights, CPR, painkiller addiction, illiteracy, child abuse, and, of course, the boogeyman that lurked around all 80s kids, drugs. If only she had learned about what to do when an adult slips into a diabetic coma.

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