A detail on “Raising Dion,” Netflix’s new family drama about a boy with remarkable abilities, signals quite how far the streamer’s ambitions for this show might extend. Jason Ritter’s character Pat, a geek immersed in comic book lore and thus the person on this show best able to understand the story he finds himself in, has a cell phone ring tone that sounds awfully familiar. By the third time you hear it, you’ll recognize it: It’s the music from the opening credits of “Stranger Things.”
“Raising Dion” incorporates not just that zeitgeist smash’s theme but its themes, plural: It’s a show that sets growing up, with its attendant lessons learned and innocences lost, against the backdrop of the supernatural, giving one special kid not just a heartwarming and engaging circle of friends but also magic powers. Here, that kid is Dion Warren (Ja’Siah Young), an eight-year-old being raised in Atlanta by a single mom (Alisha Wainwright). They’re muddling along some years after the loss of Dion’s father (movie actor Michael B. Jordan, doing double duty as executive producer and seen in flashback); he’d been a scientist pursuing grand discoveries, making the fact of his son’s sudden ability to move objects with his mind all the more ironic. Dion’s father might have been able, somehow, to explain it all, and Pat, Dion’s godfather, tries, exerting a will over the surviving Warrens that can be comforting or smothering, depending on the moment. With only each other, really, for solace, Dion and his mother Nicole struggle to make his new powers make sense.
But Dion doesn’t always need help in this regard, which is what makes “Raising Dion” a clever and easily watchable spin on its genre. He’s young enough to accept his powers as simply a part of himself, leaving others to do both the wondering about where they came from and fulminating about the ethics of superheroics. Moments in the series, as when Dion learns a lesson about respecting a classmate (Sammi Haney) by not levitating her against her will, make clear that the ideal audience is probably parents and young children together. (Indeed, the entire friendship between Dion and Haney’s Esperanza, a character with brittle-bone disease, would resonate most clearly in a family-viewing context, as Dion’s learning to respect and care for a friend with special needs and with special qualities, too, is well-drawn.)
The show has a clear sense of itself and the story it wants to tell, one whose ideas, which eventually come to encompass, and to artfully express in a teacherly way, such seemingly difficult-to-convey notions as bodily autonomy and toxic masculinity. (It’s to “Raising Dion’s” credit that such ideas, as rendered here, feel like an adventurous spin on the superhero story rather than rotely applied; such infusion of political thought at every level of a familiar genre takes real work). The show’s telling of its story, on the other hand, shares “Stranger Things’s” feeling of innocent adventurism and kid’s-eye perspective but lacks some of its crispness. Alisha Wainwright is a gifted actress, and her character Nicole’s struggle to stay herself while enduring widowhood and being a single mother to an extraordinary kid is real. But a plotline about her challenge keeping a job while keeping alive her love for dance feels like an obvious example of the sort of bloat that can infuse streaming shows, and a plotline that ultimately serves this story or its likeliest audience little.
A mass adult audience may flock to “Raising Dion” and resonate with Nicole’s story, which can seem at times disconnected from and somewhat irrelevant to his. But, unlike “Stranger Things,” I suspect that not merely will this series serve its core audience well but be somewhat limited by it. Its sweetness and poignancy, and the simple way it vacillates between plainspokenness and a slight didacticism in telling a story that could be a bit shorter may foreclose mass quantities of adults seeking it out. Those grown-ups toggling around for a weekend binge who think “Dion” seems a bit young for them are almost certainly correct. But those families that spend time learning about Dion and his world will not be disappointed. Indeed, they’ll likely be ready for a second season even before the first ends. Dion’s powers include, for those at his age level and eager to explore their own abilities of empathy and curiosity, extreme watchability.
“Raising Dion.” Netflix. Oct. 4. Nine episodes (all screened for review).
Cast: Ja’Siah Young, Alisha Wainwright, Jason Ritter, Michael B. Jordan, Jazmyn Simon, Sammi Haney.
Executive Producers: Carol Barbee, Michael B. Jordan, Kenny Goodman, Kim Roth, Dennis Liu, Michael Green, Seith Mann, and Charles D. King’s MACRO.