These days, family TV loves nothing more than a planet in peril.
On Netflix, for instance, kids may have recently watched a group of hybrid children undergo a population-decimating pandemic on “Sweet Tooth,” a team of extraordinary children attempting to save London from the supernatural in “The Irregulars,” and a kid superhero face down cataclysm in “Raising Dion” — to name just a few. While imagining kids with unique powers is hardly new (ask J. K. Rowling — or don’t), the current wave of these entertainments seems suggestively to borrow from the superhero-movie tradition. These entertainments sold to audiences old and young trade on the idea of the perfectly trained individual saving the world. It’s no wonder kids want to see themselves in the picture, too.
Into this burgeoning genre strides Disney Plus’ new series “The Mysterious Benedict Society.” Based on the book series by Trenton Lee Stewart, the series sends four orphans to boarding school in order that they might help stop catastrophe. “Our society is fragile and so much closer to the breaking point than we’ve ever been,” says one of the characters played by Tony Hale, involved in bringing the children through a complicated series of tests. “And no one is aware enough to fight it!”
The first two episodes are intriguingly paced; the first hops more or less directly into the action and drama of … a standardized test, which young Reynie (Mystic Inscho) must pass in order to enter the Society. This test exceeds viewers’ initial expectations, delivering confounding questions and witty solutions that will especially please more cerebral or puzzle-oriented kids. We follow Inscho most closely but come to meet young people played by Emmy DeOliveira, Marta Kessler, and Seth Carr — the latter of whom is given an intriguing and saddening backstory, told in miniature, about running away from parents who exploited his intellect by forcing him into trivia contests.
Presumably more looks into the lives of all four children lie beyond the first two episodes. As things stand, though, the show’s early going does an elegant job of keeping us in a swiftly rushing story but keeping us wondering, too, about the story’s history and larger ramifications.
There are treats for parents here, including giddy and committed performances by Tony Hale as multiple fixtures within the institution and Kristen Schaal as an administrator who is both rule bound and uncertain of the rules. But make no mistake: This is not the sort of kids’ entertainment that will richly reward adults watching on their own. The joy here may be in watching kids puzzle through clues with the characters and feeling let into the action; within the growing set of shows about kids asked to save the world, “The Mysterious Benedict Society” stands out, and might itself save a rainy weekend for curious kids sometime this summer.
“The Mysterious Benedict Society” premieres Friday, June 25 on Disney Plus.
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