The first iteration of Punky Brewster didn’t deal with sexuality because, well, they were kids and it was the 1980s.
But now the sitcom has splashed back into our lives as a Peacock update starring an adult Soleil Moon Frye as the titular character and Cherie Johnson as her forever bestie Cherie. And fans get to see a divorced mother of three foster a fourth child while dipping her toe in the dating pool. Punky also co-parents with her former hubby Travis (Freddie Prinze Jr.), and they still dig each other, even if they can’t really act on those lovey-dovey vibes.
Meanwhile, Cherie is a lesbian with a beautiful girlfriend named Lauren (The Good Doctor‘s Jasika Nicole), and by Episode 8, both women are so in love that they each propose marriage in arguably one of the sweetest TV proposals of all time. The writers even work in a funny nod to Cherie’s lifelong fear of refrigerators. (Now that’s an Easter egg.)
Johnson, who describes reprising her role as “a dream I didn’t even know I wanted,” says she loves the relationship between Cherie and Lauren and is proud the producers gave her character a meaningful romantic update.
“I was really excited when the producers came to me with the idea,” Johnson tells TVLine. “Representation matters. But I said, ‘You’ve gotta do me a favor. You gotta get me a hottie,'” she laughs. “Jasika Nicole is such an amazing actress, and she just meshes into the family like she’s been there the whole time. Working with her is such a pleasure.”
The late Susie Garrett, who played Cherie’s grandmother Betty on the original Punky Brewster, obviously couldn’t guest-star to give the lovebirds her blessing. But Johnson says she often felt Garrett’s loving presence while on set. Cherie even uses Betty’s ring to propose.
“That’s my grandma,” a misty-eyed Johnson says. “I’m from Pittsburgh, and my real grandmother was my everything. But we shot the show in California. So Susie stepped in and was nurturing and caring. It made me not homesick to have her there everyday when I was a kid. Being on set is like being at Grandma’s house. You’re home.”
Johnson channeled that same familial feeling in an episode that addresses Punky’s youngest son Daniel (Oliver De Los Santos) and his gender fluidity. In the installment, Punky asks Cherie and Lauren to check in with Daniel to see if he wants to reveal anything. In true sitcom fashion, Daniel doesn’t want to “come out” as anything other than himself and instead prefers to talk about Star Wars with his favorite honorary aunties.
Later, when Punky and Travis attempt to broach the subject on their own, Daniel and his siblings get annoyed. Punky also has a heart-to-heart with her older son Diego (Noah Cottrell), who got into a fight with a boy who made homophobic comments about Daniel wearing a sarong at school. But Diego doesn’t want Daniel to know about any of it.
“That’s why I really responded to it,” Prinze Jr. says. “This doesn’t feel like a show that solves everyone’s problems in 21 minutes. In fact, we fail a lot of the time trying to solve them, and that’s attractive to me.”
Prinze Jr. says his TV kids’ less-than-enthusiastic reaction to talking about sexuality and gender identity also resonated. “There are going to be a ton of people who are jaded and cynical and tired of seeing hashtags or whatever their weird reasons are,” he says. “And when they watch, they’re going to be like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to hear them talk about this.’ That’s good because that’s how these children feel when Punky and Travis try to make them talk about it.”
“There are people out there who are sensitive to things, people who are jaded to things,” Prinze Jr. adds. “And people in the middle, and it’s all kind of representative in the types of conversations this family has. Punky Brewster definitely deals with real stuff in an honest way.”
The Australian-born De Los Santos appreciates the show’s honesty and thoughtfulness, too, he says, and hopes that it shines through in his performance.
“Well, Daniel doesn’t really care what people think of him,” the actor says of his 10-year-old, self-assured character. “He just does what feels right to him. He’s a really strong kid, and I support that. I feel really honored to be able to play that.”