Sometimes it’s not the best-made shows that make the best impression. A seamlessly produced work can just slide right off you, where one whose edges are rougher can stick.
“Raising Dion,” a new sci-fi series from Netflix, concerns a superpowered second-grader and the people in his life. It’s yet another story of mutants in a world in no particular need of another one — “Too Many Mutants” is the superhero musical I will one day get around to writing — but it’s also a story of single motherhood, of elementary-school social Darwinism, of the reawakening creative impulse, of sisters, of sexual jealousy.
There are passing lessons about racism, about respecting boundaries, about the dangers of wanting to fit in: “Trying to figure out what to do, say, wear, buy,” mother Nicole (Alisha Wainwright) tells 7-year-old son Dion (Ja’Siah Young). “I mean, what do you like? Comic books and Legos…. If you show people the real you, you will not only make friends but you will make the right friends.” (Maybe that’s not true, but it’s nice to think it is.)
The show is a bit of a tonal jumble. In trying to do many things at once, “Raising Dion” can feel wayward and messy; it suffers fits of sentimentality, not always well-controlled. And yet what’s ungainly about the series is also what makes it interesting and distinguishes it from the great mass of high-gloss superhero adventures, with their tortured heroes and tortured villains, their supersized scale and Kevlar aesthetic.
One thing that keeps the series compelling is that it’s structured, across its seasonal arc, as a murder mystery — the words “serial killer” are raised, figuratively, at one point — and even a bad mystery is hard to put down once it’s begun. A story of “Did he fall or was he pushed” — or rather, “Did he drown, or was he drowned” — provides a spine to the series’ other business. Like an episode of, say, “Father Brown,” or “Midsomer Murders,” or most any detective show you care to name — not “Columbo” — it offers a bouquet of blind alleys, red herrings, likely suspects, unlikely suspects and things that aren’t what they seem, arranged to mystify its heroes and viewers alike.
Dion’s scientist father, Mark (Michael A. Jordan), was lost in a storm a year earlier, and neither mother nor son have really processed the loss. They’re adjusting with difficulty to a new apartment in a new neighborhood with a new school, where Dion has made no friends except for Esmerelda (Sammi Haney), who “doesn’t count.” (Because she’s a girl, not because she’s in a wheelchair.) Pat (Jason Ritter), Mark’s childhood friend and science sidekick, who is also Dion’s godfather, comes around a little more often than Nicole would like, though Dion is happy to see him. They share an interest in comics, and in acting like children. Discussing telekinesis, Pat tells Dion, “That’s superpowers 101, all the greats have it — Luke Skywalker, Neo, Mary Poppins.”
Little does Pat know. No more than three minutes of the series elapse before an accident with a bowl of cereal reveals to Dion, and to us — though not yet to Nicole, who will take another 20 minutes to catch up — that Dion may be in that number. Emerging powers are more often assigned to teenagers — it’s a killer puberty metaphor — who will typically be recruited into some underground Breakfast Club of similarly gifted individuals to fight an epic battle between light and dark, good and evil, topsy and turvy. It’s rare, though, that the new mutant is an actual child (offhand I can only think of Drew Barrymore in “Firestarter,” and the cartoon kids in “The Incredibles”); Dion is a little boy whose superhero games become real. But he is always a little boy, not always responsible and always in need of care.
Created by Carol Barbee (whose writing credits run from “Judging Amy” to “Jericho” to “UnREAL”) from Dennis Liu’s comic book, “Raising Dion” is certainly not the only series or film to take an interest in the ordinary lives of the extraordinary, though it is more than usually concerned with them. Ordinary life is the goal, really; the super stuff just gets in the way. No one here is out to rule the universe, galaxy or world, or even to run a city; there are no armies, no five-story robots. We do get the traditional corporate entity whose seemingly righteous mission may or may not serve darker purposes — one of the guessing games the series makes you play — and a modicum of effectively nerve-racking special-effects-driven set pieces. Nevertheless, the drama remains for the most part life-sized and personal.
Indeed, you could cut out the supernatural material and still have a decent little drama about an overwhelmed widow, her rambunctious son, her friends, her family. Much of the series is concerned with Nicole getting and keeping a job, and balancing the demands of an inflexible boss with the needs of her child. Her son has the superpowers, but Nicole is a hero too.
So what if it builds out a little more than necessary, poking into the irrelevant personal life of Nicole’s doctor sister Kat (Jazmyn Simon)? Nicole’s job hunt leads her to office work at the dance company where she performed before motherhood, and where she will venture some steps again. It’s off-topic in one way, and perfectly on point in another. But, also, it’s dancing! In science-fiction! And why not?
When: Anytime, starting Friday, Oct. 4
Rating: TV-PG (may be unsuitable for young children)