In a genre that's ever-expanding, Raising Dion is one of the few superhero TV shows that's genuinely memorable. Produced by Michael B. Jordan (who also has a small but memorable part as Mark Reese, Dion's late father), and starring Alisha Wainwright and Jason Ritter, Raising Dion starts off as a look at an unusual family raising an eight-year-old boy who is manifesting special powers.
The very first flip of the script is Raising Dion's point of view. "What's unique about the show is it follows such a small kid, who is black, and he's being raised by a single mother and you're seeing the show through her eyes," said Wainwright in a sit down with TV Guide. Nicole isn't just grieving the loss of her husband Mark (Jordan) when the series picks up; she's struggling to provide for her child and doesn't have any powers to help her do it. Everything from the family finances — Nicole is a former dancer who, post-pregnancy, confines herself to a desk job — to Dion's (Ja'Siah Young) burgeoning powers are spiraling out of her control. The fact that Raising Dion puts Nicole's grief and insecurities about raising Dion alone center stage, rather than goes down the path of a classic superhero origin story, is what makes the show the perfect entry point into the superhero genre for the entire family.
For the superhero literate crowd, Raising Dion skips right over classic comic book archetypes and dives straight into very human drama. For the older crowd, who maybe missed the superhero wave and find trying to get into MCU or DCU totally overwhelming, there's an immediate understanding and connection to Nicole, a mother who would do anything for her child's happiness.
The brilliance in showrunner Carol Barbee's take on Nicole goes far beyond creating a familiar oasis in an unfamiliar genre for the uninitiated though. It's the fact that Wainwright gets to explore Nicole's passions and interests outside of her family, and that's partly why Raising Dion feels like a breath of fresh air. "One of the things that mothers battle when you're raising your children is to maintain that bit of themselves. Sometimes it feels like they're living up everything to raise their kid, and maybe your friendships suffer or your personal interests suffer," said Wainwright. "Now that Dion's getting a bit older...as she's taking care of him and fearing for his safety, having powers and stuff, it was really important for us to also give [Nicole] a job that's more in line with what she was hoping to get out of life and explore those passions she hadn't really delved into since she had him."
In Raising Dion, it's irrelevant for Nicole to try and have it all. It's far more important for her to make sure the things, people, and journeys she does have bring her some sense of joy. As her co-star Jason Ritter, who plays Pat, Mark's best friend and de facto father figure to Dion, put it, "[Nicole] doesn't have superpowers, but she is a superhero."
By that standard, Pat is the plucky sidekick who has sudden and terrifying depth. A fairly harmless crush on Nicole turns toxic in both expected, and unexpected ways. That Pat's true reasons to get close to Nicole and Dion aren't nearly as terrifying as his treatment of Nicole is by far the best narrative on the show. Pat's storyline also gives Raising Dion a chance to open up an uncomfortable but necessary conversation that every young parent is asking themselves: How do I talk to my child about toxic masculinity?
"The discussion of toxic masculinity in the show is something I was really fascinated by when I talked to Carol. A lot of toxic masculinity or male entitlement is inherited or absorbed and people aren't even aware they're taking part in it," said Ritter. "Those elements definitely come out in the show, where someone goes, 'Well I'm not getting what I want even though I paid for everything,' you know this really subtle stuff. It makes you think, so what was your plan, you paid a couple bills so now I owe you?"
"Pat thinks he's a great guy, you know everyone thinks that they're the hero of their own story," Ritter went on to say. "But a lot of times people are keeping tabs and they're hoping to collect despite the fact that they say they're doing this out of the kindness of their own heart. But when they've lived in a world where most things have been handed to them, especially when they've been promised by movies or whatever that they are the heroes and they'll get what they want, they lash out and get angry."
"There's not that many healthy outlets for men to talk about this stuff, and it turns inwards and festers," said Ritter. "They meet all of these other people who are also festering and it gets worse and worse. And if we talk about it and put some sunlight and antiseptic on it — I'm not a doctor but I've heard — that will help."
Ritter's statement isn't just lip service. Where Raising Dion really shines is when it delves into these difficult conversations and actually follows the thread which leads to a young, impressionable, and very powerful boy learning about consent and male entitlement. But with an eight-year-old actor delivering these scenes, the cast and crew got a chance to see whether the message actually landed with its intended audience while prepping Ja'siah for these complicated scenes.
"Any of the scenes that had more specific messaging, we included Ja'siah's mom to help prepare him for the scene," said Wainwright. "She put her own spin on those explanations, so when he came to set he was still open-minded and he still had questions. I remember that day, he was still trying to grasp it, so those scenes are actually me genuinely trying to explain to him how you can't just do things, you have to understand where people are coming from, and you're not entitled to things [just because you're friends with them]."
It's in providing a blueprint for an extremely difficult conversation between parents and sons that Raising Dion cements its legacy. The small things in Raising Dion that don't stand up as well — CGI quibbles, uneven pacing, generic cinematography — are easily forgiven in light of the fact that the show is one of the few entries in pop culture that asks, how do we raise better men? Even more importantly, Raising Dion nails down a small fraction of the answer.
Raising Dion is out now on Netflix.