The Keatons and Camp Kikiwaka add up to 60 minutes of TV togetherness

(From left) Justine Bateman, Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross, and Tina Yothers from the '80s NBC sitcom "Family Ties."
(From left) Justine Bateman, Meredith Baxter Birney, Michael J. Fox, Michael Gross, and Tina Yothers from the '80s NBC sitcom "Family Ties."Everett Collection

I’ve written about lots of sticky family topics, but perhaps none so challenging as finding an hour of good, old-fashioned television that could keep my whole family happy and off of their own personal screens. Yet, once I did a little digging, I came up with humorous results.

Now, my 9-year-old spends much of his time squirreled away in the playroom, watching TV with his brother. And there are often howls — paroxysms of laughter, really. The reason? A Disney series called “Bunk’d,” whose first three seasons are online. So one night, I cued up Netflix to watch with him.

At last, pure escapism. A spinoff of popular Disney series “Jessie,” the show follows jaded New York City siblings Emma, Ravi, and Zuri Ross to Maine’s Camp Kikiwaka, where their jet-setting parents met as teen counselors. Escaping to the woods sounds appealing right about now, doesn’t it?


A scene from "Bunk'd" on the Disney Channel.
A scene from "Bunk'd" on the Disney Channel.Christopher Willard/Disney Channel

It’s akin to those classic camp comedies we grew up with, such as “Little Darlings” and “Meatballs,” with updated twists for modern kids (Emma is quite dismayed to turn over her phone upon arrival).

But some things never change. There is a head counselor, Louella, who wears her bug bites like armor. There’s Hazel, a flirt determined to keep Emma from token cute-camper Xander by any means necessary, including tricking her into venturing into the woods, where she’s confronted with the infamous Bigfoot-like Kikiwaka (howls from my son). There is scowling Gladys, an adult counselor hardened by summer romances gone wrong, who’s been blowing whistles and burning S’mores for generations. There are many references to stomach-churning dining hall food.

Are the tropes tired? For sure. Be forewarned: Despite coming out in 2015, this show doesn’t even try for political correctness. (This goes over my son’s head, but it made me cringe.) An Asian camper, Tiffany, is already applying to college, for instance. In this way, too, the show is more 1980 than 2020.


But it’s also refreshing to see kids being kids — singing camp songs, getting lost without flashlights, worrying about inconsequential stuff like crushes. It’s even comforting to see them standing less than six feet apart. Right now, I’m not sure if my son’s summer camp is going to go on as planned; this made both of us wistful for simpler times when fun was something we took for granted. If my son can’t hang out with his friends, at least he can pretend.

Then we switched to something from my generation: my husband’s favorite show of all time, “Family Ties.” (Yep, the name takes on new meaning these days.) The entire series is available for rental streaming on Amazon, in all its Reagan-era glory. We watched the pilot, which features Nixon-worshiper Alex P. Keaton (a chipper, cherubic Michael J. Fox) squiring a snobby date to a restricted club. Ex-hippie parents Steven and Elyse disapprove.

My son was mystified by the concept of siblings arguing over phone usage (where were the cellphones?) and sweater vests (‘80s fashions age poorly), but some jokes are universal: He chortled at ditzy sister Mallory’s harassment of Alex and was grossed out every time Steven and Elyse smooched.

It also opened up a real conversation for us. My son wanted to know why the family protested the Vietnam War. He then texted my dad to ask what the Vietnam War was and whether he was against it, too. This sort of dialogue doesn’t usually happen after watching “The Simpsons.” And since he hasn’t been in school for weeks — and we really haven’t been enforcing learning aside from shouted orders to read a book — well, this seemed downright educational.


We’re watching the next episode tonight; the Keaton kids have a party while Steven and Elyse are away. Cliffhanger: How will anyone find out about it without social media?

Kara Baskin can be reached at kara.baskin@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @kcbaskin.