Really, the only mystery here is why no one tried to make a streaming video series out of the great Mysterious Benedict Society books by Trenton Lee Stewart before now.
What’s the plot, Hottentot?
The elevator pitch for The Mysterious Benedict Society might read: A reclusive, narcoleptic benefactor and his quirky admin team recruit a group of orphans to save the world.
“Most people care about the truth … but most people, given proper persuasion, can be diverted from it. Fortunately there are some who possess an unusually powerful love of the truth. These are the people I must find before it’s too late. They may be humble or obstinate, delightful or mildly enraging.”
These lines, spoken by Mr. Benedict himself (Tony Hale), begin a dialog heard as the audience sees vignettes of the four kids who become the focus of the show. They are:
- Prepared and plucky adventurer: Kate Wetherall (Emmy DeOliveira)
- Quiz show memory master extraordinaire: George “Sticky” Washington (Seth Carr)
- Socially distant, malignantly snarky gremlin: Constance Contraire (Marta Kessler), and
- Brilliant, but quiet leader-type: Reynard “Reynie” Muldoon (Mystic Inscho)
Cream Rises To The Top
Independent of one another, the kids undertake a series of rigorous mental tests that will gain them entrance to the prestigious Boatwright Academy. Viewers follow Reynie through the process and assume the others take a similar route. Viewers hear audio of Reynie’s voice reciting a test question while stylized animation shows what he’s thinking.
Naturally, the four youths profiled at the start of the show are the survivors of the testing process. However, rather than shipping off to the Boatwright Academy, Mr. Benedict recruits them. He’s seen what we see: the tests reveal the unique mental or physical gifts that each child possesses, (though it is not immediately obvious what gift Constance has except for being incredibly annoying).
All of this takes place within the framework of a worldwide state of emergency called … The Emergency. Unrest sweeps the world and the authorities are incapable of stopping it or even figuring out who is behind it. Mr. Benedict tells his new pupils that he knows what’s going on and asks for them to help stop it.
The Mysterious Benedict Society successfully fires a shot across the bow of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory in several significant ways – and all of them make the show very relatable to today’s viewers.
- Require winning something to gain entry. In TMBS, it’s passing the tests. In WWCF, it’s finding the Golden Ticket.
- Have a mysterious figure at the helm, a character that borders between delightfully addled and darkly mysterious. Mr. Benedict and Willy Wonka share significant portions of their DNA.
- Use delightfully quirky set designs to keep the visual side of things constantly in flux. While not on the grand scale of WWCF, almost none of the of TMBS sets look pedestrian or boringly normal.
- Combine openly comedic touches with bits of dark humor that imply more than just a little danger and possibly actual physical harm. For example, Willy Wonka tries to cast doubt that Veruca and her father might have been burned up. He says, “I think that furnace is only lit every other day, so they have a good sporting chance, haven’t they?” Similarly, Number Two (actually Mr. Benedict’s assistant (Kristen Schaal) addresses seated students waiting to take the second test. She says, “Any child that is caught cheating will be executed.” She quickly corrects herself: “… excused … will be excused.”
Prime Mover, Reynie
Much of the show focuses on Reynie Muldoon as the story’s prime mover. We learn through him that only orphans can take the testing and that he is initially uncertain of his ability to escape from the negative aspects of the orphanage where he lives. Through him we see how his brain works to solve the intricate puzzles that make up the testing. In adapting Trenton Lee Stewart’s books for the screen (albeit the small screen), writers Phil Hay and Matt Manfredi use the “show, don’t tell” adage to great advantage.
For example, Reynie must cross a room of mostly black and white squares (with only a few of other color) without touching a black or white square. Through graphical animation, we “see” what Reynie is thinking as he measures the squares and realizes that none of them are actually square. They’re actually square-ish rectangles. He saunters across floor and passes the challenge.
Each of the other kids cross the floor in their own way, demonstrating their singular thought processes and skills. Viewers root for each one based on how the talents they show as they succeed.
Musical Shout Out
The instrumental theme song to The Mysterious Benedict Society, written by Theodore Shapiro and Joseph Shirley, is a very pleasant earworm. It is incredibly difficult to “unhear.” However, it suits the mood of the program very well and informs a lot of the other music that weaves itself through the various scenes of the show. As the Aussies say, “Good on ya, mates!”
Let’s bring up one bad item, with the caveat that it’s not really bad bad. And maybe it’s a good?
Unlike nearly every other character in the show, Constance Contraire speaks in a very thick accent. Marta Kessler, the actor playing her, is, after all, from Russia. While she enunciates very well, there are times a viewer might have to concentrate extra hard to pick out her lines, or possibly hit the replay button to hear it over again or to decipher it better.
That being said, because Constance’s verbal jousts are frequently so rude and crass, at least through the first few episodes, you want to hear them and decipher them. They’re hysterical! It’s even possible to imagine her becoming the fan favorite of the youthful ensemble. Watchers could quickly find themselves hanging on her every word – and reveling in that.
With apologies to Kim Possible and Ron Stoppable – both from another Disney program – naked mole rats are ugly. The blobfish is certainly ugly. The proboscis monkey doesn’t exactly have a svelte pelt. But with relation to The Mysterious Benedict Society, it’s only ugly to have to choose to watch this show a week at a time or to wait until it’s all been released so it’s easier to binge watch in one fell swoop.
That’s a choice, really … and not an especially ugly one at that.
Get out that very cool steampunk-themed pocket chronograph you carry around. New episodes of The Mysterious Benedict Society debut very Friday on Disney +.