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.

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