Who in the World is Carmen Sandiego?

The greatest movie theme song ever written is Ghostbusters. It’s fun, swingy and catchy, the kind of tune that crawls into your subconscious mind and emerges whenever it’s most embarrassing. By the same token, one of the greatest TV show themes ever written belongs to Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, a geography trivia gameshow that I remember fondly from the days of my youth. It was performed by the excellent vocal group Rockapella and it had some of the best wordplay and catchiest melodies on PBS. When the gameshow morphed into a history trivia show with a time travel theme the biggest loss was the theme song and Rockapella.

By the same coin, the one place I’d say Netflix’s take on Carmen Sandiego falls short is in its loss of that theme song.

This new Netflix take on the franchise is not the first attempt to morph the computer adventure games/quiz shows into a story driven animated series. There was a similar take run on Fox Kids in the mid-nineties, and in the spirit of disclosure I should note that I’ve never seen a full episode of that show. Neither have I played any of the adventure games – although we did own the “Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego?” board game and I watched a lot of the PBS quiz shows, which gave me some familiarity with the franchise.

For those not familiar, all iterations of the franchise up until Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego have revolved around detectives from the ACME Crimenet trying to locate and capture renowned international superthief Carmen Sandiego, most notable for her snazzy red coat and hat, penchant for stealing outrageous things from unlikely places, and on the nose naming sense. (Her criminal empire goes by “VILE”. Yes, really.) The franchise also tended to be very upfront with the fact that the audience was expected to participate. Players of the computer games were addressed directly, and called “Player” by name. Likewise, in the Fox cartoon, there was a mute figure by a computer who the other characters relied on for information who they referred to as Player, and who would often be left with trivia questions to answer at commercial breaks – with the expectation that the audience would make guesses as they waited for the show to come back on, of course.

The most interesting aspect of the quiz show, for me as a young child, was that Carmen very frequently got away. The challenges of the show were hard and gumshoes rarely made it through the final round successfully and, if they couldn’t finish in time, Carmen eluded them. Likewise, the other iterations of the franchise kept Carmen a step ahead of her pursuers so that she could sneak away to plot a new crime in a new installment. Her henchmen and goals would change but she was a constant. That made her the most well defined, most interesting part of the franchise.

Moving her from the role of villain to misunderstood hero must have been a natural move for the Netflix writing team. By transforming Carmen from a globetrotting crimeboss to a catburglar trying to turn over a new leaf, the latest incarnation of the franchise does a lot to push the story towards a coherent narrative with clear and constant conflict, rather than just a series of random trivia challenges as in incarnations past.

Carmen was always a bit of a mysterious figure, the better to turn up in surprising situations with no clear motive. This new take preserves that mystique by making Carmen’s origins a bit of a mystery to even herself (Orphans! A writer’s favorite kind of child!) but gives her simple and somewhat idealistic motives that make her an accessible protagonist, rather than a distant antagonist.

Fortunately, although the central character is radically reimagined, everything else about the franchise is firing on all cylinders. ACME and VILE are still part of the world; Carmen is a VILE defector and ACME is a spy network dedicated to finding and bringing down VILE. Carmen’s support team is made up of familiar faces. Zach and Ivy, homages to the protagonists of the Fox series, provide Carmen’s field support while her comms and research person is a Canadian white hat hacker who goes only by Player. And VILE’s criminal network still spans the globe and targets cultural artifacts, so the story still travels everywhere and brings up lots of local trivia like local customs, imports and exports and fine works of art.

There are new elements in the mix, like the ACME agents Chase Devineaux and Julia Argent, who are Carmen’s foils on the other side of the law. They’re introduced in a way that almost makes them feel like red herrings – they work for Interpol at first – but slowly grow to be more and more of a pain in her side. Keeping the ACME Chief as the hard faced lady from the quiz show rather than the floating head of the games and cartoon was a nice touch, even if most of the witty dialog that made that character so much fun hasn’t worked its way into the show yet.

VILE is similarly a mix of old and new. Since they basically appeared only as antagonists who players had to find, VILE operatives tended to appear alone or in small groups and never discuss how their organization worked. With the focus now on a former member of that organization, that’s changed. VILE has many more characters here than in days past, and the only familiar one is The Contessa. Pretty much everything else is made from scratch, and they offer an interesting slew of villains to serve as foils for Carmen. They’re interesting characters who manage to avoid being cartoonish villains, but I must admit I miss the likes of Double Trouble or Vic the Slick. They wouldn’t fit quite as organically in Carmen’s new world so I understand why they aren’t there, but it’s still a small disappointment.

However, after watching all of Carmen Sandiego, I still feel there’s something missing. Beyond Rockapella, that is. Carmen isn’t going anywhere, personally speaking. She’s set out to bring down VILE on her own – fair enough. Maybe she has something to prove. Maybe she just wants to definitively turn over a new leaf. But so far what this radical new direction means for her as a character hasn’t been addressed. That keeps the series from being more than just a romp through a nostalgic property, which is too bad because the studio behind it really put in the work to make an engaging show on pretty much every other front. If we were going to delve into Carmen Sandiego as deeply as we delved into world cultures I might be tempted back for another season. As it is, I’m probably going to pass.

Unless Rockapella comes back. Get on that, Netflix.

Advertisements

Lemony Snicket’s Most Unfortunate Event Was the Netflix Ending

Dear reader, if you wish to avoid spoilers for Lemony Snicket’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, then please, look away. Nothing but disappointment waits for you here.

The basic premise of Unfortunate Events is that the story has no happy endings – although it does occasionally have something like happy middles. Indeed, by the end of Daniel Handler’s thirteen book series (written under the pseudonym Lemony Snicket) the Baudelaire orphans will have lost just about every person they meet who is kind to them. Most to death, a few to circumstances a little more vague.

This is a children’s book series.

Now, Unfortunate Events is aimed at an audience on the cusp of young adulthood, intended to engage the growing minds of preteens and young teenagers with the kinds of questions that their rapidly maturing brains are starting to grapple with in earnest. What are good and evil? To what extent can people embody those traits? Why do adults do things that seem so incomprehensible to adolescents and children? The series also warns its younger readers of many things to watch out for in life. Authority figures are sometimes too untrustworthy, incompetent or emotionally comprised to be relied on. People are not always what they seem at first. And, of course, there are no happy endings in life – life always ends in death. And that’s rarely happy.

It’s not fair to say that nothing good ever happens to the Baudelaires. Their lives are hard, but they find friends and moments of peace. But they’re always moving on to the next thing, the next attempt to find the truth, the next attempt to find a home, the next attempt to get away from the evil Count Olaf. And by the time we reach the end of Snicket’s recounting of what he knows of their lives, including his own encounter with the Baudelaires, these warnings have proved true time and again, and the questions have found no easy answers. The Baudelaires do get away from Count Olaf.

It’s easy to run from someone who’s dead.

It’s not so easy to forget someone who chased you for years, setting fire to everything in his wake, and who died saving the life of a woman he hated – but loved in the past.

For a little while, the Baudelaires have peace on the secluded island where Olaf died. There’s food, shelter and no enemies to speak of. But there’s no challenge and when body and mind go unchallenged they rot. So they end the diary of their activities there – later found by their tireless biographer, Snicket – and set sail into the unknown. It is the end of their story by virtue of being all that is known to be told. Perhaps they thrived. And perhaps not.

In this mix of hope and melancholy the tale of the Baudelaires is summarized to perfection.

Netflix ruined it, as is their way.

Now I’m going to be very, very hard on the final episode of Netflix’s A Series of Unfortunate Events, but lest you think this means I disliked the production, let me take a moment to praise it. The writing carries over much of the book’s love of wordplay, incredible prose and sense of tongue in cheek fun at the forced dreariness of the story. Nothing in life can be as dull and depressing as Snicket’s take on the adventures of a handful of orphans. Part of the point of the novels is to point out how the endlessly bright and optimistic nature of many children’s books, replete with constant happy endings, is absurd. But rather than push this overbearing optimism to the point of parody, the absurdity is simply turned upside down. It might be easy to miss that and treat Unfortunate Events as something to be played straight. Nothing, from the written dialog to the actor’s performances, the set designs to the musical score, ever makes that mistake.

And speaking of production values, they are incredible. The sets are gorgeous and fun, the music fits the story perfectly and the actors are all spot on. In particular, the delightful Neil Patrick Harris as Count Olaf and the droll Patrick Warburton as Lemony Snicket absolutely nail their parts, bringing roles that could easily become grating or boring to life with a gentle touch.

The Netflix adaptation is, on the whole, excellent. But their ending undermines the entire premise of the story. You see… the Netflix ending is happy.

Now, I’ve come out in favor of happy endings in the past, particularly in the case of Edge of Tomorrow in contrast to its source material, All You Need is Kill. But the important caveat to that is the change of the core narrative from one of falling into fatalistic resolve to one of discovering hopeful courage – a change to the ending only makes sense with the change in message. Unfortunate Events has no such change in its core narrative.

Thus, the Netflix adaptation makes two core mistakes in its final episode. First, it explicitly shows the salvation of a mismanaged group of colonists on the isle. At the time everyone there was suffering from poison. In the novel the Baudelaires find an unconventional antidote but the leader of the colony takes it himself, but doesn’t tell anyone else, instead leading them off the island towards what he says is a place they can find what they need to formulate a conventional remedy. He’s the story’s example of incompetent leadership, contrasted against the Baudelaires’ parents, who leave a diary on the island which the orphans read to find their own solution. In the Netflix adaptation, the colonists set out for the dubious yet conventional antidote before the orphans find the unconventional substitute. We later see the substitute being delivered to the colonists as they row away – making it seem much more certain they survive. In the same sequence we also see a  number of side characters from throughout the series finding the end of their minor goals, giving them happy endings as well, something the novel also avoided. The core idea of Unfortunate Events, that there are no happy endings, is lost.

The second error is like the first.

Incidentally, it’s not Olaf’s Last Act. This tiny moment of redemption offered to Olaf’s character is thematically appropriate. Almost every other character is more complex and conflicted than Olaf is until he takes the time to save Kit Snicket and, by showing this tinge of good will in the character, we see the idea that people are more than what they seem paid off once more. It doesn’t make him a good man. But there was undoubtedly a capacity for good in him that went tragically underused.

No, the final failure of the Netflix adaptation is that, after we see the Baudelaires sail into the sunset to the new and unknown challenges of the rest of their life we come back to poor, lonely Lemony Snicket, who has spent all his time chronicling their life as a final tribute to his lost love, Beatrice, who, in the novels, closed knowing he would never know the end of the story – thematically appropriate because you can never guess the end of your life from the vantagepoint of adolescence – and we cut the knees out from under that moral. Because Lemony meets Beatrice.

Not his lost love, but the little orphan girl the Baudelaires take in themselves, Kit Snicket’s daughter and Lemony’s niece. She comes and finds him, and tells him the Baudelaires are fine. And we get closure, knowing that everything’s going to be fine.

That was not the point.

The point was to tell adolescents that, although their struggles are real and never really go away, they’re also good and they make you a better person. So take the good times when they come and never shy away from the bad things. There’s nothing guaranteed but a wild ride, and that’s okay. The wonder of the ending of Unfortunate Events is the unknown. The refusal to give pat, happy endings was what set it apart. And, in the end, Netflix lost that. It’s not like everything else the show achieved was lost. But it was unfortunate.

The Incredibles 2 – Stasis Hurts

There are many movies that would be good if they stood alone but, produced as sequels, come up short. No one would have blamed Pixar if The Incredibles 2 proved to be one of those movies. The original film was a classic, easily one of the best five films Pixar has done, perhaps one of the top three. Following that kind of an act is hard. Very hard.

But the shortcomings of The Incredibles 2 are more than a little sequel driven disappointment. The film lacks focus, vision and the parts of its characters that we loved the most. As a story it’s disjointed and has no real arc for most of its characters. And worst of all, it feels like it started taking itself too seriously, where the original was so self aware it brought us the term monologing. What am I talking about?

Let’s start with the characters. That’s where the biggest and most egregious errors came from. The only character in this film that has anything that feels like an arc is Bob Parr, Mr. Incredible. That may be unsurprising, given that he was the last film’s main character, but everything else about the story feels like it’s constructed to make Helen the main character. She’s the one out in the world, confronting the driving conflicts. But nearly half of the film is spent on Bob trying to be a stay at home dad to his kids, which is funny and lets us see a lot of the three younger Parrs who were all very fun in the previous film, but the problem is Bob doesn’t really have any conflict here, he just needs to get to know his kids a little. He does, we do, and that’s it.

Now, one of the best parts of The Incredibles was how charming and authentic the Parrs felt, not just as individuals but as a family. And that charm and authenticity is in this movie as well. But in the original, we got to see the Parrs as a family engage with the story and its conflict. In the sequel, the Parrs are a quirky family or superheroes for most of the time, rather than being the quirky family of superheroes they were at the end of the last film. Bob getting more invested in his family is nice, and he rarely seemed deeply involved with his kids in the first film, so this is at least a step forward for his character. It just feels extraneous. The writers at Pixar didn’t take the time to work all these character bits into the story in any way, and that’s lazy because it leaves us with a bunch of stuff in the middle that feels aimless.

Violet also shows a little character growth in this film. Where in the first film she was too shy to talk to her crush Tony, now she’s putting a little too much of her own value in holding on to that achievement and when it slips away from her she’s crushed. By the end of the film we see her a little more confident in her own standing, willing to leave Tony on the street corner while she rushes off to help her family with a quick bout of hero work. Likewise, at the start of the film she’s irritated with being left in a defensive role but by the end she realizes that her skillset makes her more suited to play support than anyone else in the family and makes peace with it. These are both good character beats for Violet but we don’t see anything but the beginning and end of them, whereas the previous film clearly shows violet’s struggle with being confident and the very moment when she stands up and takes control of her fate on Syndrome’s Island. Also tying both of her character arcs back to Tony is kinda lame.

Beyond these poorly executed character arcs no one in The Incredibles 2 changes or grows. Dash’s desire to test himself from the first film was one of the most understandable and relatable things in the original, and he even got to formulate one of the film’s core ideas, that if everyone is special no one is. In the sequel he just gets distracted by gadgets. And Helen has something that could be a character arc, doing much of what Bob was doing in the last film and trying to push Supers back into the limelight, but again that doesn’t seem to challenge her in any way. Other than lampshading how it makes her a bit of a hypocrite, the story does not force her to justify what she’s doing in anyway or admit to Bob that he was right about how necessary bringing Supers back was. Likewise, while she misses JackJack’s first power, that’s never presented as a heavy moment for her. Helen just goes out, does some heroing, and comes home. It lacks weight.

In fact, the whole conflict in the film lacks weight. The original film made it seem like Supers were coming back already, a whole second film about making superheroes legal again feels extraneous. And the fights with the Screenslaver also lack weight. It’s not gory or in your face but the fact is, in The Incredibles people tried to kill each other and died quite a bit. There’s a suicide attempt in the first two minutes. Mr. Incredible finds the corpse of one of his friends rotted to a skeleton in a cave. A lot of Syndrome’s minions meet with fiery ends. That kind of immediate danger feels absent from The Incredibles 2 with its low impact mind control plot and general lack of menace. Perhaps that’s meant partly as a reflection on Evelyn, who is a pretty lackluster villain, but mostly it feels like the movie is just going through the motions.

There was an interview with Brad Bird which I recall reading in which he said the studio was open to making another Incredibles film so long as they could come up with a good story. At the time I wasn’t sure what he meant. Now, I suspect that he had set out to tell a story he had strong feelings about and had worked out all the details for, but once it was over he had nothing more he really wanted to say there. The problem was, people (Bird included) loved the characters and world that came out of that story. So Pixar cast about for ideas about what to do with them next, and over time half formed ideas drifted together and formed the core of this sequel. Pixar is an excellent creative studio, so they were able to grasp all the charm and heart of those characters. But without a story to drive them forward a part of the magic was lost. The Parrs remain in very much the same place they were at the end of their first film and it’s painful to see. Maybe they didn’t need a sequel. Maybe there is a better format to try this with. But for now, I’m content to consider the Incredibles franchise complete. If Bird is wise he won’t reopen it until he has somewhere to go.