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As is the case with most new shows, when it comes to Disney+’s The Mysterious Benedict Society, I could pitch the series to you in a way that makes it sound enticing and I could pitch the series to you in a way that’s probably most accurate.
So sure, there’s a way to spin The Mysterious Benedict Society as Umbrella Academy without the superpowers or as a talky, visually eccentric piece of kid-friendly entertainment in the vein of Lemony Snicket or Tim Burton or — if you want the least kid-friendly comparison — Wes Anderson.
The Mysterious Benedict Society
On a more practical, if less universally recognizable, level though, The Mysterious Benedict Society is much more like IMDbTV’s recent Alex Rider: similar YA literary roots, almost the same plot and a frustrating decision to launch with enough premise-establishing episodes that repetitious exposition soon supersedes actual entertainment.
Matt Manfredi and Phil Hay’s adaptation of Trenton Lee Stewart’s books begins with a group of kids taking a series of tests for the opportunity to win a place at a secret-shrouded boarding school. The candidates are quickly narrowed down to a group of orphans, including somber and analytical Reynie (Mystic Inscho), resourceful daredevil Kate (Emmy DeOliveira), ultra-brainy Sticky (Seth Carr) and stubbornly persistent Constance (Marta Timofeeva). They can’t fly or change shapes, but between all of them they have a particular set of skills and particular demographic that will make them useful.
Only after the kids are put through their paces by staff like Kristen Schaal’s Number Two, MaameYaa Boafo’s Rhonda and Ryan Hurst’s Milligan can they meet the enigmatic Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale) and learn a mission that involves infiltrating an entirely different secret-shrouded boarding school. That means the first episode is spent introducing characters and the rules and structure of one world and then the second episode is… the exact same thing, only with a different school and several different characters. Like I said, it’s the identical plot to Alex Rider and the first two episodes have the identical problem with setting and then resetting the pieces on the chessboard without the pleasure of having played a game of chess in-between.
The first round of establishing is actually reasonably entertaining. Director James Bobin (Flight of the Conchords) gives lively energy to the tests facing the main characters, using animation, split-screens and other visual flair to capture how the main characters problem-solve and what makes them gifted. The introductory world-building — especially an archly retro production design in which costumes, automobiles and interior decor seem to have come from a pastiche of the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s (it works as a less futuristic companion piece to the Time Variance Authority on Disney+’s Loki) — is superlative and some of the performances are pretty solid.
The three featured adults are the clear standouts, giving outsized turns that call to mind Roald Dahl-style grown-up grotesques. Schaal is especially perfect as the stern proctor prone to malapropisms, while Hurst’s towering, gruff presence makes Milligan into this universe’s version of Hagrid. The end of the second episode finally gives an excuse to be interested in Hale, whose performance is composed initially of hairpieces and a single random character trait.
Hale is at least a seasoned enough actor to find amusements — odd line-readings, strange physical bits, etc. — within the limitations of the writing. The kids are less lucky. I liked Inscho’s relatable solemnity even if that’s basically all he’s given over two episodes, and then other actors are given even less. I don’t specifically blame DeOliveira for Kate making the same joke about wanting her name to be central to their group nickname at least three or four times or Timofeeva for Constance being less a character than a series of eye-rolling annoyances, but two episodes is way too soon for me to be getting bored with key characters. Nearly everything in the second episode, helmed by Greg Beeman, is repetition from the pilot delivered with less whimsy and eccentricity.
Perhaps there would be more clear momentum if The Mysterious Benedict Society didn’t have a primary adversary that was being kept intentionally vague. Dubbed “The Emergency,” it refers to a collective sense of depression and unrest brought about primarily because of media reports about economic collapse and societal decay. There’s something timely about a show in which the villain is “ennui,” but part of what makes it timely is that every warning sounded about The Emergency parrots a right-wing “fake news” talking point in a way that left me more uncomfortable than intrigued.
When Disney+ gives critics only an advance episode or two for something like Loki or WandaVision, it can be attributed to Marvel’s well-earned paranoia. But it’s harder to justify with something like The Mysterious Benedict Society, where the first pair of installments out of the gate are a promising pilot and a redundantly structured second episode with diminishing returns. There could be potential here, but not enough to build real enthusiasm.
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