In Ep. 1-2, Disney+’s The Mysterious Benedict Society favours clever brain teasers over rythm and pace, but the series’ talented cast makes up for a not always engaging and eventful plot.
The Mysterious Benedict Society has an intriguing premise. Adapted into a TV series from Trenton Lee Stewart and Carson Ellis’ children’s books of the same name, the Disney Plus show takes place in a world where humanity’s survival is being threatened by a global crisis known as “The Emergency” – a peculiar, inexplicable condition that makes people feel, to use the words of one of the series’ charming protagonists, like “something bad is about to happen, every morning; like it’s all falling apart, and no one can help”. If you think the side effects of this puzzling phenomenon sound familiar, it’s because they closely resemble the symptoms of anxiety and depression, so it’s only natural that the heroes of this clever, timely tale are children – young, empathic minds whose “unusually powerful love of the truth” has made them stronger. Even though they come from different realities, our story’s protagonists have much in common with one another.
Brought together by the peculiar Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale, of Arrested Development), our four resourceful, gifted orphans might have a lot of quirks and use unlikely methods to get things done, but they are all as clever and articulate as they are spontaneous and kindhearted. These are exactly the kinds of qualities that Mr. Benedict is looking for when he sets up what’s supposed to be a competition to get into an exclusive school but is really just a way for the eccentric ethicist/moralist/scientist to recruit the right candidates for a dangerous mission to save the world. Many intriguing, odd quizzes later, conducted by the wonderfully bizarre Number Two (Kristen Schaal, of Bill & Ted Face The Music), Mr. Benedict’s “truth-loving people [who come] from unexpected places” are found, and they are certainly as “unique” as he’d hoped they would be.
Reynard “Reynie” Muldoon (Mystic Inscho, of Darkness Comes), who’ll eventually take on the role of the group’s leader, is a grown-up stuck in a child’s body. He loves reading, he speaks multiple languages, he likes to fully examine all the possibilities before making a decision, and his hate for goodbyes comes from a deep ache for acceptance and belonging. George “Sticky” Washington (Seth Carr, of Black Panther) remembers everything he reads or sees – a talent that comes with many responsibilities, as his parents have been a little too aware of it ever since he was little.
Orphan-turned-circus performer Kate “The Great” Wetherall (Emmy DeOliveira, of Flaked) has the tendency of always speaking her mind and running instead of walking. She high fives strangers, she speaks in a loud tone of voice, and she relies on the “bucket full of stuff” she carries with her to always get her out of tricky situations. And then there’s Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler, of Cosmoball), the youngest of them all. As one might guess by the meaning behind her name, she’s a bit of a bully, but behind her rebellious façade lies a sensitive little girl who doesn’t always know how to be around others.
What happens, then, when four young geniuses are recruited by an eccentric scientist to save the world from an inexplicable, depression-reminiscent global condition? In truth, not much. If The Mysterious Benedict Society ‘s first episode is a little too intent on showing how clever it is, it also effectively introduces us to our protagonists: as we see them find inventive way to accomplish impossible tasks, we are intrigued by what that lies ahead for them, and we can’t wait to see them in action as a team. A mission is, indeed, in store for our unlikely heroes, as Mr. Benedict asks them to infiltrate the mysterious L.I.V.E. Institute, on Harbor Island, where the mastermind who’s behind the Emergency is said to be hiding in plain sight.
But, when Reynie, Sticky, Kate and Constance do just that in Episode 2, it’s not as eventful and enthralling as we thought it would be. Though we do get to meet the series’ antagonist (also played by Tony Hale), his plan doesn’t seem to be so revolutionary after all. And, while it’s always a delight to watch our four leads interact with one another no matter what they do, it’s also true that all they do in this episode is show how clever they are, and this makes the episode feel a little repetitive, since we’ve been aware of their skills since Episode 1.
And so, while all the nonsensical classes, disquieting TV screens, conversations in morse code and unfriendly teachers and students make for an enjoable second episode, The Mysterious Benedict Society ‘s characters begin to appear a little one-dimensional – a feeling that’s particularly noticeable in Episode 2 because time is diluted to such extent that viewers would be able to skip it entirely without missing any major developments or twists. This may have to do with the fact that the children’s books that preceeded the show have a very linear and straightforward narrative structure, and the series is a very faithful adaptation of the novel. This specific format worked for the books, making for good reading material for young children, but storytelling needs to be more dynamic in television, keeping in mind that it’s a visual means, and, so far, the series is, quite simply, not very entertaining, if compared to the source material.
Which is a shame, as The Mysterious Benedict Society ‘s strongest feature lies in its talented cast, starting from our four convincing leads, who enable us to connect with their respective characters on an emotional level from the very first moment we meet them. Not only that, but the supporting cast is equally compelling: Ryan Hurst’s Milligan is a great source of comic relief, demanding our attention in every single scene, and MaameYaa Boafo’s effective portrayal of Rhonda calls for more than one surprise throughout the series. Gia Sandhu’s Ms. Perumal helps make Reynie a more well-rounded character with the wisdom she imparts, and, though we don’t really get to see Tony Hale much in these two episodes, we can’t wait to find out more about the two characters he plays. On a visual level, the series is equally compelling, coming alive with desaturated hues and bringing us to a very specific time and place that is entirely its own, made even more unique by a catchy opening theme that also serves as a visual introduction to the characters.
Judging by Episodes 1 and 2, The Mysterious Benedict Society succeeds in certain aspects and fails in others. Perhaps in an attempt to be loyal to its source material, the series often lacks rhythm and pace, featuring more than one twist you’ll see coming and several scenes showing our characters pretty much repeat the same motions over and over again. Though each of them is provided with a backstory, the lack of detailed characterisation unfortunately also deprives them of the kind of depth that defines those stories that are not just engaging, but also meaningful, which is particularly a shame given the fact that The Mysterious Benedict Society would seem to want to approach, at least on surface level, themes that have to do with identity, mental health, and social dynamics. However, thanks to consistently great acting from all performers involved, the series does give us four relatable leads and an equally enthralling supporting cast, despite it all, and this, combined with the show’s compelling visuals, keeps us interested in the narrative even if not much actually happens in it.
The Mysterious Benedict Society premieres on Friday, June 25th, only on Disney+.