An elusive woman that’s always one step ahead of the player, Carmen Sandiego is a character that has floated in and out of the zeitgeist for decades. She’s back again in Netflix’s new animated series and she’s not quite the same.
The Carmen Sandiego games were a fixture of my childhood. There are fond memories of using the school computers during my lunchbreak to hunt her down all over the world. As far as edutainment titles go, Carmen Sandiego was in a league of its own.
Combine that with the incredibly 90s cartoon series with its iconic theme song and you’ve got a very potent source of nostalgia.
Not all of the many Carmen Sandiego shows had banging themes. ‘Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?’ did not stand the test of time and somehow managed to wrap right around to being an enjoyably goofy bit of nonsense.
The idea of hunting a world-class thief while learning about geography and history wore a little thin too. I don’t think anyone really wanted to find Where In North Dakota Is Carmen Sandiego.
When Netflix announced they were bringing Carmen back in a new animated series, I was intrigued but skeptical. Recent nostalgia driven shows like She-Ra and the Princesses of Power have been surprisingly enjoyable yet there’s always this nagging feeling that they’ll get something wrong.
That’s what happened with the new Carmen Sandiego show. It takes many elements from the old shows and games, mixes them up and comes up with something new.
Somehow the mix doesn’t come off quite right.
Instead of being an enigmatic thief that’s always one step ahead of the player, Carmen (played by Gina Rodriguez) is now working against a supervillain syndicate alongside a white hat hacker called ‘Player’ (played by Finn Wolfhard) and her two friends, Zack and Ivy – who were originally ACME detectives chasing Carmen.
The mystique is gone.
The show starts with a two part episode delving into Carmen’s origins on the isle of V.I.L.E. Raised by a group of international thieves and trained to become one of them, Carmen soon learns that V.I.L.E are not just ordinary super-thieves but a league of villains. The different potential meanings of V.I.L.E. are treated as a big reveal.
Apparently she draws a line between stealing expensive things for profit and doing dastardly deeds which leads to Carmen betraying the people that raised her and fleeing to become a globetrotting kind of heroic thief.
All of that backstory feels completely unnecessary and it gets dumped on the viewers right up front. It almost feels like the show’s creators knew that they were dramatically changing a fondly-remembered character so they had to justify those changes with an origin story. I would much rather have seen her in action and learn for myself who this new Carmen Sandiego is.
When the show jarringly shifts to its more standard episode format of Carmen travelling to a distant location, infodumping some knowledge and then doing some criminal shenanigans, it becomes far more interesting.
You have the well-meaning team all working together to save the day from the evil-doers of V.I.L.E. Everyone has a part to play in the capers with an international cast of villains for the team to play off against.
The show’s humour works quite well with jokes coming at a steady pace and never feeling too on the nose.
Everything comes together in a totally adequate but not outstanding way.
More than a few nods to Carmen Sandiego of old exist in the show. A scene in an elevator with Carmen and Cookie Booker – played by original Carmen Sandiego voice actress, Rita Moreno – is scored by a muzak version of the original theme. A few episodes in, Zack holds an auction paddle with the number 85 – a reference to the original game’s release in 1985.
Nostalgia is clearly a big part of the show. It’s not the only part.
Carmen Sandiego is still a show that teaches viewers about the world while trying to frame it around criminal capers to keep the kids interested. It’s just that how all of those elements are combined is profoundly different from what worked in the past.
Now if only I could find a way to play the old Carmen Sandiego games on a modern computer.