For the last year and a half, I’ve been following Netflix’s animated modernization of Carmen Sandiego in the hopes that the show would eventually mature into something better. I was fine with season one and two and even enjoyed the characterization of its main cast, but was puzzled why the writers felt the need to make nods to the older shows and games. If it could have just broken free from the shackles of nostalgia, Carmen Sandiego would have turned out to be pretty great.
That’s why season three surprised me so much. Likely made under a tighter deadline thanks to COVID-19, the season was much shorter, and couldn’t afford to screw around with senseless details. It got right to the point, introduced a new villain, and kept things moving. It was very refreshing, even if there were still problems.
Season four also surprised me, but not for the same reason. No, I was mostly surprised because Netflix did next to nothing to promote this season and was calling it the last. It was originally confirmed to be happening shortly after season three aired, but Netflix’s only acknowledgment of this finale was a stealth tweet back in December of 2020, then a sudden appearance on the service this month. What the hell?
Thankfully, that wasn’t representative of the quality here. It’s puzzling why Netflix felt this was the season to end the show on, but at least it goes out being just as decent as before.
Carmen Sandiego (Season Four)
Showrunner: Duane Capizzi
Release Date: January 15, 2021 (Netflix)
Picking up pretty much immediately after the conclusion of last season, Carmen Sandiego – Season Four goes for something of a more serialized approach than previous seasons. There’s definitely some filler in the beginning, but the main plot this time out involves Carmen finally discovering her heritage and even briefly being brainwashed by VILE into doing evil. It’s kind of all over the place in terms of development but mostly deals with action instead of narrative.
As a matter of fact, the first episode of this season is set in Beijing and it recalls a ton of classic Kung Fu films. One of the best decisions for Carmen as a character in the Netflix series was to give her martial arts training and it almost feels like a homecoming to see her battling thugs in what is the mecca of martial arts. Her sensei, Shadow-san, is also more involved this time out, though he needlessly gets decommissioned for a few episodes.
That’s actually how I feel about most of the plot points in Season Four. The writers were clearly trying to focus on individual characters to give them their own moments, but Shadow-san breaking his leg to only then come back three episodes later feels pointless. Player getting put into public school only for his parents to reverse their decision an episode later is…confusing. Carmen getting brainwashed for the last two episodes is also incredibly rushed and something that should have been saved for a season five.
Sadly, a lot of that is likely down to Netflix suddenly deciding this was the end. I’m not sure when that decision was made, but the stealth tweet I mentioned above revealed that season four would be the show’s last. There’s still a live-action movie in the works (which will bring Gina Rodriguez in to don the red hat and coat), but I don’t know if that is going to tie up any loose ends or is simply being done out of obligation.
Obligation is likely why Agent Argent makes a reappearance after walking away from ACME in season three. It’s also why Devineaux is back and why the Chief still doesn’t believe Carmen is good. There has to be some kind of opposition despite all of the clues telling otherwise and it’s frustrating after season three did so much to change that perception. I guess you can’t break the formula, even when this is the last time everyone will be together.
When Carmen, Devineux, and Argent finally team up, it results in possibly the best episode of the series. Hot on the tails of ancient VILE artifacts, the evil corporation kidnaps Argent, and that forces Carmen to reveal the truth to Devineaux. They then travel to Egypt to intercept VILE before it can grab a hidden treasure and eliminate Argent. All those episodes of build-up paying off feels great, not to mention it gives fan-favorite characters a chance to shine together.
But for every other episode, we’re mostly going through the motions. There’s nothing that really attempts to change what Carmen Sandiego had done before. You have the same pointless factoids, the same rushed plotlines, and the same solid-to-decent animation. I appreciate that the action sequences drop the awkward slow motion and are ridiculously well done, but everything else feels static in comparison.
I was willing to forgive the more hectic approach last season, but for a conclusion to this series, Season Four feels incomplete. Carmen is reunited with her family, sure, but those final two episodes blitz through what could have been an interesting separate season. Carmen being evil is what the original character was all about and I would have loved to see ACME and her current friends trying to thwart her a la the old video games. It would have also been neat to learn something new about the character versus a random plot twist that goes nowhere.
Despite all of this complaining, I really can’t find it in my heart to say this season was bad. It’s disappointing, that’s for sure, but it never feels wasteful. The episodes recall a more lighthearted style that has since gone out of fashion in animated series. This is basically like a 90s TV show where the moment-to-moment action took far more precedence than an elaborate plotline. If continuity got in the way of a good angle, that continuity was dropped.
It will puzzle people that have become accustomed to newer shows that slavishly devote themselves to getting all of the details correct, but when the fight scenes are this good, I can let it slide. It’s more disappointing because Netflix pulled the plug on what was a pretty decent little show. For whatever reason, this is all we’re getting and that’s a shame.
If you can go in with lower expectations, I’m sure you’ll find that Carmen Sandiego – Season Four is a decent enough conclusion to a series that deserved better. Maybe in a few years, we can see a continuation emerge.