“There is a place where truth matters, even if most people don’t pay attention to it.”
“The Mysterious Benedict Society,” a streaming TV series on Disney Plus faithfully adapted from the original novel by Trenton Lee Stewart, slowly unravels a surprising and even sophisticated mystery with a talented ensemble cast and charming Technicolor style.
Set in a vaguely British seaside locale circa the mid-1970s, the plot hinges on news media anxiously hyping a threat called The Emergency. Four subversive children, seemingly immune to the panic, are soon recruited by a resourceful benefactor to uncover the truth.
This premise has hints of a global Gallup poll released this week, which found that feelings of worry and stress peaked last year. “The characters in this story are struggling with a wave of anxiety and societal tumult,” said show co-creator Phil Hay in a recent interview. “Obviously, that resonates with the world that we’re living in.”
“The Mysterious Benedict Society” will remind viewers of other offbeat cinema: the quirky intrigue of “A Series of Unfortunate Events,” Gene Wilder’s benevolent creative genius from “Willy Wonka” (mirrored here by star Tony Hale, who is clearly enjoying himself), and the optimistic formality of Wes Anderson films.
Beyond visual panache, the thematic substance of this series leaves viewers with a lot to chew on. Families may find this new series not just an ideal summer read-along project, but also a cathartic one after a year of lockdowns.
“People who are constantly anxious are disempowered, they’re easy to manipulate and control … The villain’s aim is mind control by strangely realistic means,” said Hay. “This displacement expressed in the book we connected to our current era.”
Symbolism and Sincerity
Narnia creator C.S. Lewis often described an iconic mental image that was a catalyst for his fantasy series: a faun holding an umbrella in a snowy wood. Likewise, author Stewart recalls a mental picture that sparked his imagination before writing his first best-seller.
“The first one was an image of a child … taking an incredibly difficult test that was more than it appeared to be,” Stewart said in an interview. “I knew there was a secret to the test. So once I started asking who these kids are, why they’re taking these difficult tests, it sort of led to the notion that they were being recruited for a difficult mission that only children could accomplish.”
That sense of suspense and surprise carries over onscreen, plotted by show creators Matt Manfredi and Hay who’ve collaborated on “Clash of the Titans” as well as Kevin Hart’s “Ride Along” comedies. Known for his roles in mature comedy series “Veep” and “Arrested Development,” star Tony Hale pulls double-duty here as eccentric problem-solver Nicholas Benedict and his evil twin brother bent on world domination.
In a nod to Roald Dahl, Daniel Handler, and similar children’s authors, character names are tongue-in-cheek indicators of their persona. Antagonist Dr. Ledroptha (L.D.) Curtain has a master plan cloaked in darkness, as if he’s “dropped the curtain” on it. One of the four children who’s constantly contrary to the rest is named, aptly enough, Constance Contraire.
Kids reading along with the series can spot such clever jokes, while they also attempt to solve various mind-bending riddles posed in the story. Balancing high drama with lighter moments to engage families, “Benedict Society” shows teamwork among divergent personalities. “The message of the show is that everyone has value, and there are many, many ways that value could be expressed,” said Hay.
Countless current shows feature protagonists with otherworldly powers solving dilemmas — usually with a heavy dose of biting sarcasm and onscreen brutality. An emphasis on goodness, sincerity, and innovative thinking contrasts even many Disney Plus titles.
The children’s “superpowers are things that perhaps they don’t see as valuable at first,” said Manfredi. “They can’t fly, they can’t shoot lasers, but they have empathy. They’re resilient, they’re inventive. They think about things in unique ways.”
Pulling Back the Curtain
The show’s first season, with its eighth and final episode premiering August 6, has been a bit lost in the shuffle on Disney Plus — between Marvel’s “Loki” series and major film release “Black Widow” trying to reignite the MCU theatrical magic.
In contrast, “The Mysterious Benedict Society” is geared toward a younger audience, and enjoying it doesn’t require extensive knowledge of past comics or superhero film lore. Show creators are angling for future seasons, as Stewart has written three sequels and a prequel to explore.
From the first season, they hope viewers come away with thoughts about how the media portrays current events. What’s the intent behind how TV news frames a story? Who gets to decide what is “misinformation”? Questions like these matter in a world of Big Media and Big Tech.
“It’s making a connection, but not too grim a connection, to the world of today,” said Hay. “We’re trying to pull apart what it means to be propagandized, to be indoctrinated, to be given phrases to repeat that—when you stop and think about them don’t actually add up.”
Fellow creator Manfredi says these themes are prescient in an environment driven by news and debates over “misinformation.” The series offers “the idea of seeking the truth,” he says, “and having the truth to be the answer to the anxiety and difficulty that this world is struggling with.”
Rated TV-PG for peril and some thematic elements, “The Mysterious Benedict Society” is now streaming on Disney Plus.