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The Mysterious Benedict Society - Big Day Today - Review: I Believe the Children are Our Future

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In retrospect, this was never going to be pretty.

We want to be kind to the things that we love, and I love the Mysterious Benedict Society books. I wanted to give the TV adaptation a fair chance, and so every time The Mysterious Benedict Society (the show) entirely failed to deliver any of the charm and honesty and youthful joy of the book series of the same name, I mostly chose to overlook, searching for that one moment that did right; that might've made up for all the drag. But doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results - as old adage says, that’s how you achieve insanity. This week's finale moved beyond the rest of the season's simple mediocratic lack of commitment and into a new territory of plot shoe-horning and inexplicable events that the audience is supposed to shirk off without justification. And as kind as I’d like to be now, as the humble Disney+ show’s first (and only?) season comes to a close, I’ve held myself back for 8 weeks: it’s time to be insane.

But first, the episode. As the Improvement rapidly approaches, the Society plans their tower raid. They know Sticky will be used to transmit the Whisperer’s message because he is Curtain’s favorite, so Sticky determines that he just needs to hold off the Whisperer while Kate destroys it. Reynie, for his part, is tasked with taking care of Curtain. He estimates that because Curtain and Mr. Benedict are twins, Curtain will have narcolepsy that can be triggered by strong emotion in the same way as Mr. Benedict. Unsure of how else to elicit strong emotion, Reynie plans to tell him a joke to get him to laugh himself to sleep. As Constance points out, it’s not the most genius plan, but, you know, why not?

Kate and Constance go out to get hydrochloric acid to use against the Whisperer, but they are suddenly discovered and Kate is captured by Curtain’s goons. She is taken to the Waiting Room, where she finds that Martina has ratted her out for breaking into the server room. Curtain comes in and interrogates the two girls, trying to sus out the real culprit by...doing magic tricks? I guess the Waiting Room is just magical now, even though magic does not exist in any other way shape or form in this show... I guess the writers thought that Curtain could have a room that inexplicably breaks the show’s laws of reality. You know, as a treat!

To save Martina, Kate confesses to her crimes. In gratitude, Curtain has her taken to the Brainsweeper. Milligan turns himself in to Curtain’s men, promising to give Curtain Benedict’s whereabouts so long as he spares Kate. However, this is just a stall tactic, and Curtain recognizes this. Unfooled by the ruse, Curtain sends Milligan to the sweeper as well. He also reveals to Milligan that he was Brainswept by Curtain years previously, accounting for his memory problems.

The next tick on Curtain’s to-do list is to take over the world, so into the Whisperer he and Sticky go. However, unlike the previous times, Curtain senses Sticky is working against the machine and sends for a backup Messenger to do the job in case Sticky cannot. At the same time, Kate, strapped into the Brainsweeper, is preparing for doom when Constance arrives, having snuck through the building’s vents to save her. The two girls head to the tower, where they encounter Jackson and Jillson leading an army of goons and Executives. Sticky’s replacement messenger also arrives - Reynie - and while Kate distracts the onslaught of enemies, Constance arrives at the top of the tower as well.

As Curtain tries to coax Sticky to continue their Whisperer session, Reynie tries to make him laugh. After a few duds, He tells a (genuinely funny) joke, and Curtain actually breaks out into laughter - but it doesn’t trigger narcolepsy like it would in Mr. Benedict. Finally catching on to the Society’s plans, Curtain calls a code red in the Whisperer room just as Benedict, Number Two and Rhonda Kazembe (who had snuck onto the island rather easily) make it into the tower. Mr Benedict heads to the top to confront his brother while Rhonda and Number Two stay to fight the oncoming soldiers.

At the base of the tower, Kate is about to be pummeled by Jackson, Jillson and Curtain’s goons when Milligan shows up to defend her. Martina and the tetherball team also arrive to defend Kate, with Martina having been touched by Kate’s selfless sacrifice for her. With Jackson and Jillson thoroughly engaged, Milligan sends Kate up the tower - but not before calling her Katie-Cat, the nickname her father used to call her. Yes, they bungled the most touching moment in the entire novel to pieces, but now it’s out - Milligan is Kate’s dad, and that’s just about all the show bothers to say about that.

Curtain gets visibly upset when Sticky refuses to get back in the Whisperer, pleading with him and telling him he “wants this” for him. Reynie, seeing the chink in Curtain’s armor, tries the emotional appeal, giving a moving speech that feeds into Curtain’s sense of sadness and loneliness. The ploy works, and Curtain passes out.

Kate arrives to help, but when she reaches the top of the tower, the Society realize they have nothing to destroy the Whisperer with. So instead, Constance gets in the machine, in an attempt to break it through sheer force of will. The gist of it is that Constance stubborns so hard that the Whisperer gives up, completely shutting down.

Exactly on time to miss all of the action, Benedict arrives and sends the kids away to confront his brother in private when he wakes up. After a by-the-numbers sibling conversation (Benedict begging his brother to be good, Curtain insisting on being evil) Curtain escapes (hello, season 2). However, with the Whisperer out of commission and its inventor in the wind, Benedict declares the Emergency over and everyone returns to their normal lives. Kate and Milligan reunite, Sticky actually gets to attend the Boatwright Academy, and Benedict moves to adopt Constance (which she respectfully declines, although she agrees to stay with him nonetheless). And that’s where we leave off!

Phew. Now, for the less-fun part (or more fun, depending on your perspective).

Disney had the rights to this property, but they were not right in making it. This entire adaptation, in fact, is a wonderful example of a recurring theme with modern Disney properties. Ever since Disney+ allowed for a greater influx of mouse-branded content, it's becoming impossible to deny that Disney-produced films and television - and especially the B-level non-blockbuster types - rely on facsimile. Every show, movie, etc; increasingly hit on the exact same story beats, half-heartedly and without proper development to back it up. It’s a formula that expects that the audience is looking for the same product with a new label each time (unfortunately, we often are). Sometimes, the spectacle of it all still works, and the lack of true storytelling can be overlooked in favor of “a good time” (ex. the company's most recent Marvel releases). But other times, the inclusions and exclusions made for the sake of carefully curated mediocrity cheapen and harm the moments that had the potential to be the most beautiful or memorable.

The stench of this “paint-by-numbers” method of filmmaking is all over The Mysterious Benedict Society as a whole. For example; in the books, it’s explained that Milligan’s name comes from his last memory with Kate, where she asks him to swim at the mill pond again. After Milligan was Brainswept, “mill-again” was the only thing he remembered, and was the tether he held onto when he knew nothing else in the world. It seems natural that in any normal adaptation this would be a clear mark for an adaptation to want to hit on; after all, it’s a simple and sweet anecdote that both tells Milligan’s story and establishes his devotion to Kate without the legwork of a longer backstory/explanation. It's frankly baffling to me that the show would keep this detail from the books at all when it was not intending to give us any reason to care about it. Is anyone going to point out that knowledge that we “should be” invested in a story does not immediately generate investment? Kate misses her dad. Milligan is her dad. Great, now feel things!

This misstep was the most offensive to me, personally, but far from the only moment in the finale that we were seemingly expected to just accept for the sake of plot convenience. In hindsight, this finale - the entire show, really - is just a symptom of a larger disease; a method that is being embraced by streaming services high and low. No thought, no care, just crank it out and profit. Again, perhaps this is just the breaking point of a disgruntled fan speaking, but I feel that we can't deny that the median quality of new streaming releases has been dropping in quality rapidly.

The one thing I can continue to praise in this adaptation, even among all the disappointment, is the acting. Yes, Tony Hale got to ham it up with himself as Curtain and Benedict face off, and as poorly utilized as they were, Kristen Schaal and MaameYaa Boafo remain spot-on choices for Number Two and Rhonda, respectively. But it’s still the young actors playing the Society members that act as the true saving grace of the show. Mystic Incho was charming throughout the series as Reynie, although most especially during the confrontation scene (his delivery of the “you’re all kids” joke genuinely made me grin). Emmy DeOliviera is a true talent; acting as a perfect encapsulation of Kate, a character that has been important to me ever since I first read the book series when I was young. I honestly hope to see all of the show’s young cast again on my screen, although hopefully next time in something that (to borrow a meme phrase) understands the assignment as much as they do.

Not only did this adaptation do a poor job, it did a complete misjustice to the nuanced, intelligent source material, one that transcended the generic-ness of YA fiction. That is, if the writers even bothered to read the source material instead of just reading the Wikipedia synopsis, which honestly feels just as likely. As many chances as I gave it (and I gave it many), the glaring flaws in this adaptation go past the realm of nitpicks from a longtime fan. Perhaps younger audiences (and those who care a bit less about story structure than I do) will still find something to love about it. But I believe that the only hope for The Mysterious Benedict Society is that it inspires viewers to pick up the book series, which is definitively superior in every way.

What were your thoughts on The Mysterious Benedict Society finale? What do you want more of? What, if anything, would you have changed? Let me know in the comments!

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