First look Disney+ TV review: The Mysterious Benedict Society
Ivan | On 27, Jun 2021
“Was it always like this? Bad news all the time?” That’s the sound of The Mysterious Benedict Society heading to our TV screens, as Disney+ adapts Trenton Lee Stewart’s book into a TV series. The story follows four orphans who are recruited to a secret boarding school to stop The Emergency – a sinister plot that involves spreading lies and fear subliminally through the media. Children, who are less susceptible to deceit and can more readily see the truth, are the ones chosen to save the day by the mysterious Mr Benedict.
If that sounds like a timely premise for a family adventure, you’d be both right and wrong. Penned in 2017, Stewart’s story is uncannily prescient for the current age, in the way it explores questions of misinformation, division and trust in the media. There’s an unusual echo of conspiracy theorists to Mr Benedict’s confident lack of faith in mainstream media, but the show also highlights the dangers of a small group of people upending public broadcasts for their own nefarious ends – and yet perhaps the biggest surprise of The Mysterious Benedict Society is that it doesn’t acknowledge the resonance of its themes at all.
Instead, it keeps the focus on whimsical adventure and puzzle-solving. That becomes clear from the off, as the young, kind-hearted Reynie (Mystic Inscho) is recruited to take the entry exam for the prestigious Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened. Also taking the tests are George “Sticky” Washington (Emmy DeOliveira), who has an uncannily good memory, practical whizz-kid Kate Wetherall (Seth Carr) and the rebellious Constance Contraire (Marta Timofeeva), and they all find their own ways through the challenges and riddles.
That’s a large part of the fun on offer, as the series shares an unabashed passion for questions that contain the answers hidden within their wording, or tasks that can be unravelled through sheer logic. Mystic Inscho is great as Reynie, who’s given a chance to shine in the brain-teasing department, and he’s supported by a strong cast of young actors who each manage the tricky feat of being eccentric but never irritating or over-the-top. Kristen Schaal, meanwhile, steals scenes as their adult minder, who manages to be both ridiculously silly and almost intimidating, if she wasn’t she amusingly uncertain of the rules she’s tasked with enforcing.
But perhaps the MVP is Tony Hale, who leaves Buster from Arrested Development far behind with his offbeat leader, who has an endearing appreciation of youthful wisdom. He gets a chance to show multiple sides to the role of outsider Professor X-type. “Our society is fragile and so much closer to the breaking point than we’ve ever been,” he warns, ominously. Hale’s performance, along with the rest of the ensemble, help the series’ opening episodes to race through the extended exposition (including a slightly clunky voiceover) and keep you pleasantly diverted from the wider world. Whether the series will ever attempt to solve those problems is yet to be seen.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.