It has been a great many years since the world has heard the name Carmen Sandiego. What was once a mega-popular edutainment franchise has quietly faded into obscurity with the rest of the ’80s and ’90s. You used to not be able to escape Carmen’s red fedora and computer software, but she disappeared into the night like the master thief she is.
When it was announced that Netflix had acquired the rights to the Carmen Sandiego name and would be producing a series, I was skeptical. How were they going to recapture the magic of a brand that could only exist in a specific era? As it turns out, Netflix didn’t have that in mind. The plan was to completely reboot the series with a new story putting the focus on who Carmen really is.
As contrived as that may sound, the first season of this new Carmen Sandiego is a bit better than you might expect.
Carmen Sandiego (Season 1)
Showrunner: Duane Capizzi
Release Date: January 18, 2019 (Netflix)
As with any modern reboot, our story with Carmen Sandiego starts with a whole lot of exposition. During a caper to retrieve some stolen goods, Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) happens upon one of her old colleagues while escaping. Since he has her “hostage,” she decides to regale him with the tale of how she came to be an ever-present thorn in V.I.L.E.’s side.
If you have any familiarity with the original Carmen Sandiego series, you’ll immediately know the name of V.I.L.E. Standing for the “Villain’s International League of Evil,” the group in this reboot operates from a remote island somewhere near the coast of Western African. Having found Carmen as a small child, she is adopted into the organization and given the codename of “Black Sheep.”
As the first two episodes then go over, she lived her life learning the tricks of the trade and quickly growing as a master thief. We see her at various stages of her youth under the care of Coach Brunt, getting into hijinks and generally being a happy child. There is a constant wonder of where she is from, but she accepts V.I.L.E. as her family and wishes for nothing more than to join their ranks.
After failing an exam that she was certain she could ace, Carmen is held back a year from becoming a V.I.L.E. agent. Not willing to accept defeat, she stows away on a caper and plans to beat her colleagues to the punch. While skulking around for clues, she runs into an archaeologist that explains to her the importance of preserving history, which then gets Carmen to rethink her entire life as a thief.
That epiphany couldn’t have come at a better time, because her V.I.L.E. cohorts show up and nearly kill the archaeologist while trying to make off with a priceless artifact. From that night forward, Carmen vows to thwart V.I.L.E.’s evil plans at every corner. The rest of the episodes then follow a format similar to James Bond by having Carmen skirt around the World and go to various different countries to complete her tasks.
Since the original Carmen Sandiego was an edutainment property, the writers at Netflix have tried to pay homage to that in each episode. Sadly, this is the weakest aspect of the new series. Hardly any of the educational facts are organically woven into the plotlines. Instead of Carmen learning about her environment from her “man in the chair”, a kid named Player (Finn Wolfhard), and exploiting them, the show stops to exposit pointless information at the viewer.
Characters will read off the entire name of each country and city, and then recite a bunch of random facts about the local area. I suppose that is one way to learn about geography, but it doesn’t feed back into any aspect of the show. There actually is one episode that does capitalize on this device, but that is a single example out of the dozens that crop up.
That misstep aside, you’re looking at a standard spy show. Somehow, Carmen Sandiego feels like Jason Bourne in that she is a total badass that can hide in plain sight. She is skilled in not only espionage but martial arts and fashion (as her red coat clearly shows). I’m surprised just how many fight scenes there were because I certainly wasn’t expecting to get a kung fu fix from a children’s show.
Whenever there isn’t action going on, the show is just kind of bog-standard. It is a fun little romp, for sure, but there isn’t a whole lot happening from episode to episode. It’s not until around the seventh episode that Carmen Sandiego starts to feel like a complete idea. In this particular episode, titled “The Chasing Paper Caper,” a fellow student from Carmen’s past is introduced and is basically her equal. After having a thrilling fight scene, the episode gives us some more bits of Carmen’s upbringing while showing just how serious of a threat that V.I.L.E. operative “Paper Star” is.
While I understand the need to frontload a lot of info to get viewers up to speed, I’m puzzled as to why each episode of the series couldn’t have followed the outline of Chasing Paper. It really is the perfect way to give us background on characters, show us particular skills they’ve acquired and even bring ideas back into the main plot. It plays out like a tightly crafted script from an action series instead of a simple children’s program.
The next two episodes are also pretty similar. They weave Carmen’s life with her current caper and inform us about the tensions between V.I.L.E., Carmen and the counter-agency ACME (another homage to the original series). Even some of the offhand details from the first two episodes come to a head, which brings a certain revelation to the foreground and has an honestly really brutal fight scene.
Apart from some standout moments, however, the rest of Carmen Sandiego doesn’t fare as well. Instead of being a maverick, Carmen has some sidekicks in the form of a Bostonian brother and sister and they mostly act as comic relief. I’m struggling to even remember their names, but neither one is given much room to shine. The side character of Detective Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi), the man hunting Carmen, could also be summed up as such. While he is present in every episode, his personality seems to be limited to “funny accent.”
I want to like him, but he seems totally clueless and without charm. At least his partner, Julia Argent (Charlet Chung), seems to be up on how Carmen isn’t exactly a villain. She gets a few good jabs at Devineaux’s expense, which is fun. It’s also nice to see “The Chief” make an appearance, but she has even less to work with than Devineaux. She appears when the plot dictates it and does little more.
Thankfully the voice acting is pretty solid. The series starts off like everyone is reading from cue cards, but each performer slowly grows into their characters by the time the season wraps up. Gina Rodriguez, in particular, sounds great in the titular role. I’m not sure I’m fond of the canned accents that local bystanders have, but that is a small grievance when they only make up around 20% of any given episode.
The biggest elephant in the room, though, would have to be the animation. In a preview for the first season, I wrote that it looked like an Esurance commercial. That still holds true, but everything is very sharp and vibrant. It looks a lot better in motion, which is great for the numerous fight scenes Carmen has. It’s also quite stellar on the proper HDTV setup.
But all of these decent elements don’t add up to a satisfying whole. There is some clear effort being put into Carmen Sandiego, but it seems the writers aren’t exactly sure where to take the world’s most elusive woman. Reshaping her to be a knock-off of every modern spy character doesn’t do her any favors and neither does trying to shoehorn in educational information. Instead of committing to one idea and running with it, Carmen Sandiego wants to appease old fans while bringing in new ones.
There definitely is promise to the idea of explaining Carmen’s past and refocusing her as a Robin Hood-esque thief, but less time should be spent honoring the past. Instead of trying to be the show Carmen Sandiego once was, Netflix’s series needs to embrace that it is a different beast altogether and work from there.
If they can do that, then we’ll be one step closer to really figuring out who Carmen Sandiego is.