Trenton Lee Stewart’s young adult novel may have debuted in 2007, but it has proved itself as timeless as ever. Releasing weekly episodes since June 25, Disney+ has lifted the world of Stewart’s “The Mysterious Benedict Society” off its pages and onto screens everywhere, breathing life into Carson Ellis’ whimsical illustrations in an often wonderful, though sometimes flawed, way.
The novel and its television adaptation follow Reynie (Mystic Inscho), Sticky (Seth B. Carr), Kate (Emmy DeOliveira) and Constance (Marta Kessler), four uniquely gifted children who are recruited by a compassionate, wise man named Mr. Benedict (Tony Hale). Operating under his guidance, the youthful team infiltrates the highly competitive, mysterious L.I.V.E. Institute in an attempt to uncover the academy’s sinister secret.
It’s no simple feat to transform such a peculiar novel into a consumable show: In fact, the protagonist Reynie, per Stewart’s original characterization, is the (intentional) epitome of average. Yet “The Mysterious Benedict Society” manages to delve beyond surface-level mundanity and simplicity, from unraveling perplexing enigmas to evading the institute’s austere rules (“Rules and school are tools for fools,” Constance chirps). Though the leading ensemble generally lacks chemistry, the emphasis on the children’s individualized talents — Kate’s athletic adventurousness or Sticky’s photographic memory, for example — helps the show prioritize its more captivating qualities.
What’s perhaps most enchanting about “The Mysterious Benedict Society,” however, is its polished aesthetic. Drawing inspiration from the early twentieth century, the L.I.V.E. Institute operates in the broken, artistic realm of Bauhaus, exquisitely asymmetrical and geometric. From the off-kilter aesthetic of the academy’s tortuous Waiting Room to the artful clutter of Benedict’s velvet green study, the series somehow feels both unearthly and cozy in an contradictorily cohesive way. It’s clean and stark, furnished with understated pastels in a glorious renaissance of ‘60s fashion.
Although its aesthetic can be traced to specific decades, the show itself floats with a mystifying agelessness. “The Mysterious Benedict Society” could be taking place in the past or the future, yet its steady undercurrent of eeriness feels characteristic of the present. The Emergency, a purposefully vague crisis riddling the nation with anxiety, lurks beneath the adaptation’s poppy colors — a prime example of how the overall playful series still strikes an unsettling tone with refined subtlety.
Considering the success of this temptingly eerie tone, it’s surprising how the show sometimes struggles to take advantage of its more promising moments. Scenes that should be overflowing with suspense instead favor safety. There is value in the show’s consistent, underlying sense of peril, but “The Mysterious Benedict Society” begins to border on disappointment when it wanders in only the periphery of risk.
Nevertheless, the show does make strides to keep its audience intrigued, deviating from the original text in slight but effective ways. Whether it’s introducing adaptation-original characters in the first episode or the L.I.V.E. Institute expelling its failing students, the series generates necessary conflict that helps turn up the heat on the book’s slow-burn action.
The plotline variations also make room to highlight Benedict’s adult team members, allowing Kristen Schaal to shine as the eccentric, yellow-pencil-skirted Number Two and MaameYaa Boafo as the clever, independent Rhonda. On the other hand, Ryan Hurst, who plays the amnesia-ridden handyman Milligan, leans into the dark and brooding archetype a little too much, his well-intentioned dry humor lines occasionally falling flat and his lengthy monologues missing their marks.
Opposite to Hurst’s committed embrace of his stoic character, Hale doesn’t take full advantage of his dual role as both Benedict and the L.I.V.E. Institute headmaster. His characters would be better off distinguished as distinct foils, but instead of leaning into his dramatic side, Hale’s overwhelmed talents are split into two half-baked characters that don’t quite guide the show properly.
Although it’s too tentative at times, “The Mysterious Benedict Society” often makes the most of its peculiar premises, offering displays of escapist and idiosyncratic creativity. And above all, much like Benedict’s bright-eyed team of children, the series demonstrates a vital, outside-the-box creativity that the modern world covets.
Contact Taila Lee at [email protected].