Expecting inference from a kid bingeing on Netflix may be too much to ask, and on just about every level, “Raising Dion” refuses to let any mystery be. Take the opening sequence, which isn’t so much the first scene of the series as a preview of scenes to come later on, like one of those mini-teasers that runs right before the full trailer on YouTube or Twitter. It’s not a flash-forward — there’s no effort to connect it to the characters’ reality — it’s just a promise that if you’re bored or confused for even a second, don’t worry: There’s an explanation or explosion just around the corner.
Blunt entertainment delivery is the wave of the future, as an expanding TV landscape sees streamers fighting for your attention every waking second (and even when you’re asleep, actually), but “Raising Dion’s” overt manipulation extends beyond the storytelling. The new Netflix drama is literally built to remind you of an older, extremely successful Netflix drama. Like “Stranger Things,” “Raising Dion” is a family-friendly show featuring both kid and adult characters who play in a supernatural world. While not as spooky as the Duffer Brothers’ horror homage, showrunner Carol Barbee’s modern day mother-son story uses the superhero genre to its own grand world-building (and franchise-starting) designs.
And it’s not bad! As annoying as it can be when a show doesn’t trust its audience to connect any of the dots on their own — and believe me, when the “Stranger Things” theme is used as a ringtone, I nearly lost my mind — “Raising Dion” is so focused on delivering a good time that it’s kind of hard to stay angry. More importantly, it takes a conventional origin story framework and reflects it through the unique lens of a black, working class family, putting just enough emphasis on the struggles of single motherhood to believe audiences may not forget everything they just watched the second Season 1 wraps.
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Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) didn’t expect this to be her life. A former ballerina, Nicole retired from the stage to raise her son alongside her husband, Mark (Michael B. Jordan) — a research scientist obsessed with studying various weather patterns and related phenomena. But when Mark died, Nicole had to figure things out for herself and Dion (Ja’Siah Young). She’s been bouncing from job to job ever since, trying to find a reliable paycheck and good health care for her family.
All of that information is slowly trickled out over the course of the first few episodes. You don’t learn how Mark died until they’ve teased the mystery around his disappearance enough times, and I didn’t realize Nicole had dancing experience until maybe midway through the nine-episode first season. What Barbee (alongside EPs Jordan, Kenny Goodman, Kim Roth, and Dennis Liu) prioritizes is Dion and his superpowers. Within minutes of meeting the wide-eyed little boy, he spills his cereal and freezes the flying milk and colored chunks in mid-air — staring at the colorful mess-in-waiting, Dion doesn’t know how he did it. He tells his mom (who didn’t see the cereal until after it hit the floor) he can do magic, and the two proceed about their day as normal.
But don’t worry: Nicole quickly finds out about her son’s inexplicable abilities, traces them back to his father’s secretive corporate work, and must accept one more burden on her already overwhelmed life: raising not just a son on her own, but a super-powered son. Soon, Mark’s best friend Pat (Jason Ritter) is introduced to help out, and their makeshift little family starts hitting every beat you’d expect.
From a cynical standpoint, there are plenty of glaring flaws to pick at, especially if you can’t shake how it feels like “Raising Dion” so badly wants to be “Stranger Things 2.0.” Familiarity is a problem: The big company is an evil corporation; the dead dad may not be dead-dead; the son’s powers are better than everyone else’s powers. The show also treats its soundtrack like a crutch, laying heavy beats during transition points to cover for a lagging story, and the visual effects used to show off Dion’s powers are pretty spotty. (Even something as simple as a skateboard being pulled under his feet looks way too fake.) Perhaps more to prospective viewers’ interest, Michael B. Jordan is not a series regular. That should be obvious, since his character is dead, but he’s not the star here. The executive producer and guest star just shows up as often as can possibly be justified (probably to help cut a convincing trailer or five-second pre-trailer, teaser).
The release timing doesn’t help give “Raising Dion” the benefit of the doubt, either. With Disney+ looming, Netflix needs more star power (“Hey, Kilmonger is in this!”), franchises (“This is a lot like ‘Stranger Things’…”), and family-friendly content. (“I guess Disney doesn’t have every show my kids and I want to watch.”) But it’s difficult to dwell in that cynicism when so many of the series’ core elements are just solid. Young’s portrayal of Dion is very childlike — while sometimes it feels like he’s turning the cuteness knob to 11, he’s curious and muted throughout most of his less intense scenes. Wainwright is sturdy as well, and Ritter really leans into his affable nature. The action scenes are effective, overall mystery well-teased, and episodic structure pretty sound.
More importantly, the creative team doesn’t ignore the particular problems facing a black single mother. When her child is threatened with expulsion, the series acknowledges racial bias from an institutional level. When she’s going on job interviews, what to do with Dion is not only a question, but acknowledging her commitment to him could cost her a position. One could even argue Dion’s powers are just a metaphor for the increased pressure on Nicole — she’s constantly concerned for her son’s well-being, no one really understands how much she’s going through, and the stress itself can impede any shot she has at improving their circumstances. When Nicole finds out Dion has super-powers, all of these issues are magnified, helping to illustrate the mother’s heroism to viewers at home.
None of this is breaking the mold in a big way, but “Raising Dion” isn’t aiming for original artistry at all costs. It wants to entertain, please, and maybe ever-so-slightly inform. Even with all the overt manipulations, this Netflix drama feels good-intentioned. Maybe it’s all a con, but it’s a cute con that you probably won’t mind falling for.
“Raising Dion” Season 1 is streaming now on Netflix.