I was a voracious reader as a child. I consumed the Harry Potter books at a frankly alarming rate. I was obsessed with any adventure of Nancy Drew. And I collected the complete works of Lemony Snicket and Roald Dahl. But despite my love of these books (or perhaps because of it) I’ve always felt underwhelmed by their eventual adaptations.
So when Disney+ announced an adaptation of my all-time favorite book series a decade after I first checked it out from my middle school library, I was skeptical. I had no idea the series would become a faithful-yet-thrilling book adaptation and also the best sci-fi apocalypse series of the year. With the finale premiering on July 30, here’s why this Disney+ series is worth a watch — even though it’s got nothing to do with Marvel.
Based on the books by Trenton Lee Stewart, The Mysterious Benedict Society tells the story of Reynie Muldoon, a lonely orphan with a penchant for creative thinking. Seeing how stunted his intellectual growth is, his teacher takes him to a strange testing center for the prestigious Boatwright Academy.
The test is the first indication that something is amiss — the questions are completely impossible to solve unless you read them all, at which point it becomes clear the answers lie within the other questions. Reynie passes the test, but he’s not brought to the Boatwright Academy. Instead, he’s brought to the office of Mr. Benedict, who’s recruited a team of youngsters to embark on a secret mission to save the world.
Reynie meets the fellow winners of the tests: Kate Wetherall, the ever-prepared tomboy who carries around a bucket of handy supplies; George “Sticky” Washington, a boy who remembers everything he reads (and he reads a lot); and Constance Contraire, a younger girl with a sharp wit and biting snark.
Benedict reveals he needs their help solving the Emergency, a looming apocalypse being communicated to the populace via subliminal messages. Together, they must go undercover at The Institute, where Mr. Benedict’s twin brother Mr. Curtain is masterminding the subliminal messages using a device called the Whisperer.
The Emergency is what makes The Mysterious Benedict Society more than just a family adventure series — it’s a legitimate addition to the science fiction genre. The Emergency, though vague, causes the media to plaster headlines like “DOOMED!” all over newspapers. It’s dystopian and frightening, and the roots behind it are even more so.
When the children arrive at the Institute, they discover a vast conspiracy that goes much deeper than just some subliminal messages. Mr. Curtain’s plan would rival any supervillain, even if his lair is full of children and pastel colors. Don’t let the family-friendly vibe fool you — the stakes in this series rival any Marvel movie.
The reason why The Mysterious Benedict Society works so well is thanks in no small part to the all-star cast. Kristen Schaal brings her trademark quirkiness to henchman Number Two, and Tony Hale pulls double duty as both the lovable narcoleptic Mr. Benedict and the menacing Mr. Curtain.
“It was a little crazy going back and forth,” Hale told Radio Times. “But what I so appreciate is, you know, the actors, we’re kind of a small slice of this pie because the pie is mainly made up of production and wardrobe and hair and make-up and lighting.”
The secret ingredient of this pie is the distinct visual style of the show. The Mysterious Benedict Society has a thrilling, Stranger-Things-esque story, but it doesn’t rely on darkness and jumpscares to communicate its puzzling plot. Instead, the world of the series is full of bright lights and colors, a kid-friendly atmosphere for a sophisticated plot.
While the show is family-oriented, there’s plenty for the sci-fi connoisseur to enjoy. The Mysterious Benedict Society trusts its audience to follow along with its plot without going for obvious laugh lines or plot exposition. On top of that, the directorial style brings to mind the hyper-stylized visuals of directors like Wes Anderson, making the show visually stunning. Even iconic horror director Karyn Kusama takes a turn behind the camera for one later episode.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is a rare example of a book adaptation that improves on its source material. It made for a great all-ages book series, but it makes for an even better offbeat sci-fi television for the quirky kid and the adult sci-fi fan. Now the season finale is out, it’s the perfect time to binge.
The Mysterious Benedict Society is now streaming on Disney+.