The new series The Mysterious Benedict Society (Disney+) is based – and fairly strictly so – on Trenton Lee Stewart’s fizzingly intelligent and fun 2007 book (and beginning what became a consistently charming and rewarding five-volume series) of the same name.
It is a tale of four gifted orphans – Reynie Muldoon (a borderline genius at everything), George “Sticky” (because of his eidetic memory – everything “sticks” in his mind) Washington, Kate Wetherall (and her bucket of tools that her ever-practical mind can use to improvise a host of inventions and emergency solutions) and tiny Constance Contraire (who … well, of whom more later). They are recruited, via a newspaper advert and a variety of odd tests, to aid the mysterious Mr Benedict in the fight against what is known as The Emergency. It is not just their brilliant brains he has chosen them for, he explains, but their commitment to truth.
First things first. The children are played by, respectively, Mystic Inscho, Emmy DeOliveira, Seth Carr and Marta Timofeeva. They are all fantastically good – I still don’t know what the US puts in the water to create a new crop of devastating child actors every few years – but Timofeeva, in the tricky part of wordy, furious, babyish yet preternaturally adult Constance is extraordinary.
The adults are great too. Mr Benedict, a kind of trustworthy Willy Wonka figure (though he does suffer from narcolepsy and cataplexy and is liable to pass out at moments of high tension, so you have to keep an eye on him) is played with perfectly blended verve and compassion by Tony Hale. When viewers grow up to watch him as Buster Bluth in reruns of Arrested Development, their minds are going to be entirely blown. Ryan Hurst as the devoted Milligan gets most of the best lines (at least in the first two episodes, which were all that were available for review) and captures the steadfastness beneath the weirdness. And Kristen Schaal’s innate and idiosyncratic quirkiness fits her role as Number Two in this off-kilter show with its Wes Anderson-lite beats and aesthetic, as if they were made for each other.
By the end of the opening double bill, the children have been briefed on Mr Benedict’s theory that sublimated messages are being beamed from somewhere on the nearby island that houses the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened and have gone undercover as students there to investigate. Whoever is doing it is disseminating misinformation, sowing seeds of fear and distrust around the world and fomenting global chaos.
Yes. Yes, I know. The book was published in 2007 when this was still an imaginative tool with which to create an interesting fictional jeopardy. And now here we are. The great sorrow is that Disney does not have the courage – or perhaps desire – to lean in to the potential offered by this now-prescient and fertile setup. “Was it always like this?” asks one of the children. “Bad news all the time?” is about as deep into the whys and wherefores of what life – imagine! – under such an Emergency might be like. It is presented as a straightforward result of old-fashioned, individual villainy, the metaphorical depths of the insidious malaise left unplumbed. What could have offered children a chance to understand the historically unprecedented aspects of the internet age they live in, made the young fish conscious of the water they swim in, is left simply as a romp. Which is fine. It just could have been so much more.