I won’t try to resist comparisons in my review of Raising Dion, because it’s not just about what this show stands head and shoulders above in terms of characters, acting, and story telling, it’s also illuminating to see what it’s standing closest to in the now crowded genre of sci-fi super hero films and TV. Immediately I’m taken back to the first (glorious) season of NBC’s Heroes (2006): Heroes was sprawling to be sure, following more than a dozen different characters spanning the globe in a mounting and suspenseful drama to prevent a cataclysm.
Heroes hooked viewers with relatable characters, well paced escalation and intrigue, and a good focused hook that was driving the swath of storylines: Save the Cheerleader, Save the World. Everyone had a different favorite character it seems (even if it was the villain, Sylar, rather than a hero). Raising Dion eschews this method of scope by way of breadth and motley and takes on a much tighter focus, and is thus the better for it.
At the core it’s the story of a single, recently widowed mother, Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) and her young son Dion (Ja’Siah Young) in Atlanta. Notice I haven’t mentioned the powers yet, and that’s where the show really shines: it never loses sight that for everything that eventually escalates from the realm the realm of the fantastic, this is a story about a mother and her son. Their relationship as she helps him navigate the normal travails of youth, as well as the complications his developing super powers add to the ethical and moral mix, is always the stone set foundation of the series, and Wainwright’s delivery of her love, dedication, and humanity as a single mother coping with the recent loss of her husband is palpable and drives the show’s best moments right into the heart. I think there’s a lot to be said that the most memorable scenes are those of quiet love between mother and son in the safety of their home, the protective rage and fury when Nicole is worried about Dion’s safety, or even Nicole grabbing the entire bottle of wine to take in the bath with her after a long, trying day. We can all relate.
Again, it’s a triumph that the show never loses its footing from that relatable aspect of the characters and their relationships. Even as the plot thickens and unfolds towards the reveal of the grandiose villain and corporate intrigue, it keeps Nicole and Dion as the North Star. Too easily these stories can slip into the powers being larger than life and thus larger than the day to day wants and needs of the people within it. Another super hero story that comes to mind is X2: X-Men United (2003): amid the extinction level threat, is a group of people with real human needs, emotions, and motivations that propel them through to face the threat, not the threat being the pull in and of its own force of inertia and gravity. One of the most memorable scenes from that movie is Ice Man “coming out” to his family as a mutant.
I’m alluding to the other side of Raising Dion‘s there with my choice of words: X2 was absolutely intended to parallel that experience many LGBT youth have in coming out to family, it’s an allegory that’s been instill in the very DNA of the X-Men since their inception in the comics. People being treated differently for being born a certain way out of the norm, even if that different way is something fantastical or seemingly positive.
Raising Dion absolutely takes the same approach: while it’s a cataclysmic event that gifts the powers to Dion and sets the plot in motion, the show is absolutely concerned with the ethics of how we treat people for what they are be it race, gender, or disability. The show is patient, it takes its time to really consider and weigh its characters, and really sets a bar for what a hero is in how we view, understand, and treat one another as the entry point for heroism.
Superman is at his most heroic when he’s talking to and understanding people as they are and what they can be. Spider-Man is his most heroic when we remember he’s just that nerdy teenager from Queens doing his best, Batman is his most admirable when we see him as the grieving boy trying to prevent another tragedy in his city. Raising Dion truly has its foundation firmly fixed in the right place, and is telling us the right story about how to raise a hero.