“People with powers are either heroes or villains,” Dion Warren explains to a new friend. Dion would know. Not only does he have superpowers — the abilities to, among other things, move objects with his mind, teleport, and heal the sick — but at age seven going on eight, he sees the world with a simple morality in which everyone is good or bad, heroes or villains. And Dion’s mom Nicole has raised him to be a sweet kid who of course can only imagine himself as a hero.
Dion, played by Ja’Siah Young, is the title character of Netflix’s new drama Raising Dion. But it’s Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) who’s much closer to the main character. The series’ first season feels less like a superhero origin story than a superhero mother’s origin story.
Adapted by writer Carol Barbee and director Seith Mann from a comic book of the same name, Raising Dion offers powers aplenty, mythology — much of it involving the mysterious death of Dion’s scientist father Mark (Michael B. Jordan, who appears in flashbacks) and a weather event Mark and his best friend Pat (Jason Ritter) witnessed in Iceland — and a visually striking bad guy in “the Crooked Man,” who looks like a thundercloud in giant human form. But it’s also a show that is even more interested in the ways that a child with superhuman abilities complicates the already difficult job of being a single mother — not to mention one who’s raising an African American son in 2019.
Some of this narrative balancing act may be a function of necessity as much as design. The untested Young very much lives up to his name: energetic and endearing, but also limited in what he can do as an actor at this very early stage of his life. Wainwright, meanwhile, is an adult with years of TV work under her belt (including a regular role in another show with supernatural themes, Freeform’s Shadowhunters) and a natural, extremely watchable presence on camera.
This creates an odd dynamic throughout the first season. The plottier aspects of the story revolve around Dion as he discovers his powers, is coached by Pat on how to use them, and is threatened by both the Crooked Man and the shady tech company his father used to work for. And so long as Young is sharing the screen with either Wainwright, Ritter(*), or, as a mystery woman from Mark’s past, The Wire‘s Deirdre Lovejoy, it largely works. But when the adults are left behind to focus on Dion’s travails at school — where he’s desperate to impress the only other child of color in his class, even though the kid’s a jerk, and embarrassed by the friendship overtures of disabled student Esperanza (Sammi Haney) — things can really drag, with only the fundamental sincerity of the storytelling making the material work at all.
(*) Ritter’s superpower has been his innate likability (inherited from his father, John). As beta male Pat, still envious of his late best friend and nursing a transparent crush on Nicole, he gets to push compellingly against the limits of that power.
Meanwhile, as the season moves along it spends more and more time on Nicole’s life beyond her son or late husband, as she gets an office job with the dance company where she used to be a soloist, and perhaps rekindles a passion for the art. Wainwright is terrific, but the show is so clearly designed for kids Dion’s age to watch (whether solo or with their parents) that it’s jarring when we’re suddenly spending long swaths discussing (and occasionally performing) modern dance.
Still, the scenes about Nicole juggling her many duties, and trying to help Dion become a good man as well as a future savior of the world, are endearing and emotionally potent. In one episode, Dion — still not in control of his powers — telekinetically knocks down a bully who has stolen his father’s watch. Nicole witnesses the school’s white principal lay all the blame for the incident (which he didn’t even see) on her son, and wrestles with whether Dion is old enough for the talk about being black in America. “He needs to know what he’s up against,” Nicole’s sister Kat (Jazmyn Simon) insists. The conversation that follows — “You have to be more careful than other kids, OK?” Nicole warns Dion — is, like a lot of the series, simple and straightforward, but hits its target squarely.
And if Dion’s age occasionally proves a storytelling detriment, it also inspires Barbee and company to be more playful than your average comic-book show. Too many of today’s superhero dramas — including most of the other ones on Netflix — act like they have to be as serious as possible in order to be taken seriously. But for Dion — or, as he occasionally calls himself, Mind Mover — powers are awesome. In one episode, a neighbor invites Pat and Dion to join his pickup basketball game, and as Pat helps Dion use his abilities to make like a mini-Steph Curry, the giddy quality of the scene is infectious.
Raising Dion isn’t perfect, but the season breezed by for me. And it’s a show made by people with obvious affection for comics — each episode title is inspired by a famous comic-book storyline or phrase, like “Days of Mark’s Future Past” or “You Won’t Like Him When He’s Angry” — who feel no need to apologize for that love. Because Dion Warren would never think of apologizing for such a thing, even if his mom would prefer he focus on homework sometimes.
Raising Dion premieres October 4th on Netflix. I’ve seen all nine episodes.