Welcome one and all to our look at Raising Dion, the nine-part Netflix series based on the comic book and short film by writer Dennis Liu and artist Jason Piperberg. Starring Alisha Wainwright as Nicole Warren and Ja’Siah Young as little Dion (plus executive producer Michael B. Jordan as his late father Mark), the show tells the story of a young mother coping with the revelation her son has telekinetic powers. The comic was fun if fleeting — it was only one issue — story, so how does it manage the transition to a full series?
Note: this review for the first episode will try to keep spoilers to a minimum.
1. The Uncredited Comic Book Artist
Things get off on the wrong foot during the opening credits when only Dennis Liu is credited as the creator of the comic book — what is this, the 1940s, when the only credit artists got was to incorporate their signature at the bottom of a page? While it has no bearing on the quality of the episode itself, it is disappointing to see a program on a platform with a reach as huge as Netflix perpetuating the fallacy that only writers count as the “author” of a comic – either credit both Liu and Piperberg, or don’t say it’s based on a comic at all.
2. Raising David
Dion is a surprisingly small kid – I would’ve guessed he was a five-year old, but no, he’s meant to be one of the youngest kids in his year. It sets up a refreshing dynamic where he struggles to make friends with all the older, cooler kids in his class — his only friend is Esperanza (Sammi Haney), who has brittle bone disease (osteogenesis imperfecta, or OI from now on). It feels like the show is making a pointed effort to avoid the five-man bands other kids’ shows seem to be filled with nowadays, and by making him and his friend genuinely physically vulnerable, it heightens the sense they are little Davids taking on the Goliaths of the world.
(By the way, it should be noted Sammi Haney does actually have OI, and casting an actually physically disabled actor — let alone a disabled child — should always be applauded.)
3. The Flying Spaghetti Father
Despite not crediting both creators, Raising Dion is pretty keen to lean in on its comic book heritage, with the inclusion of Jason Ritter (Kevin (Probably) Saves the World) as Pat, Mark’s old colleague and Dion’s comics-loving godfather (who wears a Flying Spaghetti Monster shirt). He gets to shine a fun light on the tropes of the superhero genre while humoring his godson’s claims that he can do magic, like the loss of a parent, something that he quickly regrets. Ritter has a good balance of comic and dramatic timing, and is quite convincing as someone who doesn’t want to talk down to kids but is at the age of realizing why they might have to: as token white characters go, he’s pretty likable.
4. The VFX Isn’t Great
The visual effects are blatantly obvious in scenes like the one where Dion discovers he can “do magic” after spilling his cereal: the floating milk looks like a lump of melted plastic, and similarly the set piece at the lake where he tries using his powers to fish gives us some very unconvincing, video game-like renditions of bass. It works better when the show aims for a Spielbergian sense of wonder (complete with Williams-esque musical flourishes), but when it tries to rank up the intensity as Dion struggles to control his powers, the dramatic moments come across as hokey and corny.
It’s not all bad: the water and wind effects during the fishing sequence managed to look photorealistic. But overall, you come away wondering if more money was spent on licensing the show’s music than its effects — seriously, there are some very popular tunes in the first episode, stuff even white viewers could name, like Coolio’s “Gangsta’s Paradise” or Mary J. Blige’s “Family Affair”: basically, don’t expect a mix as eclectic as the Luke Cage soundtrack.
5. Two Leads, One Show
This is a show with two leads, whose storylines have their own distinct tones reflecting their ages. Dion lives in this precocious, fantasy world where all the kids’ vocabularies are clearly provided by screenwriters who’ve eschewed realism. That’s fine, but it does clash with the more naturalistic direction of Nicole’s world, filled with intimately shot flashbacks to her life with Mark. It’s hard to square Nicole’s poignant and relatable story of quietly grieving her husband, with outrageously cheesy moments like Dion using his powers to skateboard – ultimately, this first episode is the definition of a mixed bag.Continued below
– On that note, I really liked how Nicole’s first reaction to discovering her kid’s superpowers is to tell her sister Kat (Jazmyn Simon): it might seem crazy but you never know how you might react to something as jawdropping as that.
– It is a pleasant surprise just how much Michael B. Jordan is in this episode despite his character being deceased.
– We don’t get to learn about Nicole’s past as much as her husband’s, but we learn about her career as a ballerina in two elegantly filmed shots.
– The cinematography is generally pretty great: it does a lot to establish Atlanta as a setting particularly well.
Well, those were my thoughts on “ISSUE #101” of Raising Dion: now if you’ll excuse me, episode 2 is waiting in my Netflix queue.