“Was it always like this? Bad news all the time?”
This question is asked of Miss Perumal shortly after we meet her and her young student, Reynard Muldoon.
“I don’t remember it that way,” Miss Perumal responds. In the moments after we see her face take on an expression recognizable to every parent, grandparent, teacher, anyone who’s had to respond to a child’s difficult question. The ache of someone who can’t give a comforting answer to the child they love.
They speak of The Emergency, an amorphous event on every front page and every mind. What is it? We don’t know. Maybe no one does. Only two things are certain; no one is at the wheel, and everyone is frightened.
But perhaps Miss Perumal can give Reynie a chance. The elite Boatwright Academy is holding a special exam for new applicants. Getting in would give the orphaned, brilliant, odd egg Reynie an opportunity he desperately needs. Only the very best get in. And not all the tests are what they seem.
Disney’s The Mysterious Benedict Society is based on the book by Trenton Lee Stewart, NYT bestseller and the first in a trilogy that’s sold over three million copies. Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale, thanks Janet!) searches for children who can save the world. He believes The Emergency to be a fictional event invented by the mysterious Sender and reinforced by subliminal messages hidden in every television and radio signal. The world around him seems to confirm those suspicions. People reuse the same phrases when speaking of The Emergency. No one knows what it is or how to stop it though it’s gone on long enough that billboards urging change are plastered over with the same messages. Working with Mr. Benedict are Number 2 (a delightful Kristen Schaal), Rhonda (MaameYaa Boafo), and Milligan (Ryan Hurst), each with their own quirks and strengths.
Benedict finds our four heroes through an extensive battery of tests ranging from the purely physical (running a maze) to the existential (True or false: fish are unnerving). They don’t all pass the tests in the same way; some don’t pass at all. But they bring qualities more important than the ability to test well. They bring ingenuity. Forethought. Adaptability. And, most importantly, empathy. A quality, the narcoleptic Mr. Benedict points out, sorely lacking in today’s society. And who doesn’t know the truth of that? They see people. Not all of them show it in the same way - Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler), for example, could give Gregory House a run for his money despite her youth - but they care about people and the truth.
In this The Mysterious Benedict Society joins recent shows like The Good Place and Ted Lasso that examine what we owe each other and our society. They recognize that we live in a world where Reynie isn’t the only one with questions. “Was it always like this?” is certainly a question I ask myself on a regular basis. Is the pace of history accelerating, or does the endless news cycle make it feel that way? Uncertainty grows and with it, the ground crumbles beneath our feet.
The unique story and fantastic performances help elevate The Mysterious Benedict Society, which suffers from an abundance of whimsy and quirkiness. It’s not that it’s bad to be quirky; it’s just that if you’ve watched A Series of Unfortunate Events, Umbrella Academy, Good Omens, etc. then you know what to expect. The sets could be lifted from the early sitcom days of WandaVision, with a colorful 1950s aesthetic and tech level. The characters are fun and wonderfully performed. Tony Hale is warm and effusive with the children without giving off creepy Willy Wonka vibes. Kristen Schaal as Number 2 (because she looks like a pencil) is relentless if slightly confused. Ryan Hurst’s Milligan exudes melancholy but also a sort of black humor, and he delivers a monologue in Episode 2 almost Shakespearean in its performance. It’s worth watching for that scene alone. MaameYaa Boafo as Rhonda Kazembe plays both another Boatwright hopeful who offers the students an easy way out and one of Mr. Benedict’s most trusted assistants.
And the kids are great. Reynie Muldoon (Mystic Inscho) is quiet, compassionate, and thorough. George “Sticky” Washington (Seth Carr) is burdened with high anxiety and an eidetic memory. Kate Weatherall (Emmy DeOliveira) has a bucket, an overabundance of energy, and no qualms about calling people out on their rudeness. That leads to much butting of heads with the aforementioned Constance, who is equal parts adorable and absolutely terrifying. She feels no shame about her blatant self-interest, but her commitment to absolute honesty and fearlessness make her a force to be reckoned with. These four must work together to investigate the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and its enigmatic headmaster, L. D. Curtain. The trailer already spoiled his identity but I’ll leave it unsaid until next week.
Will the kids discover the identity of the mysterious Signaler? Will they learn the purpose behind the enigmatic school tower, and the Messengers who are the only ones to visit? Will they discover the truth behind The Emergency and ultimately save the day? I mean, it’s a Disney show, so obviously the answer is yes. But it’s not about the destination. And so far we are promised a delightful journey on our quest for the truth. There’s enough here to keep children entertained, with rousing adventure, clever kids, and just enough peril to keep everyone on their toes. And I suspect parents will feel more than a little empathy of their own for these characters trapped in a world where every day brings new worries we, as individuals and caretakers, can do little to solve.
The first two episodes are available on Disney Plus now. Six more episodes will drop on upcoming Fridays.
Image sources (in order of posting): Youtube, trailer screenshots