With how unexpected and depressing 2020 has been, it feels like a decade since I last thought about Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego series. After binging a few different shows from my youth to try and take my mind off of things, my phone altered me to the presence of a third season for the elusive thief in red. Netflix seems to have done very little to promote Red’s return, but I was definitely down for another globetrotting romp to thwart the evil V.I.L.E. corporation.
I’m happy I tuned in, too. While Netflix hasn’t quite corrected the errors of the last two seasons, season three of Carmen Sandiego is the best one yet.
Carmen Sandiego (Season Three)
Showrunner: Duane Capizzi
Release Date: October 1, 2020 (Netflix)
It feels strange calling this latest string of episodes the third season because there are only five present. This is the shortest season thus far and clocks in just under the length of most Hollywood films. You can sit down and bang out this string of episodes in about 84 minutes, which might just be the intention. Netflix has catapulted the idea of “binge-watching” into the zeitgeist, but season three of Carmen Sandiego practically feels like a short film.
That’s the best thing I can say about these new episodes. For my past reviews of season one and two, I kept complaining about the forced educational factoids and the sometimes faulty animation, but everything here is improved. Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) still gets mostly pointless facts from Player (Finn Wolfhard), but they play more of a role in the scenarios she encounters. They also stop in the last two episodes, so that’s nice.
The main plot of season three directly follows the events of season two. If you’re like me, you’ll definitely need a little refresher before sitting down to watch. If you don’t, you might be a tad confused about why Carmen is so hell-bent on discovering her past and how that directly involves V.I.L.E, her primary adversary. Once you get caught up, it’s nice to see the show not waste any time when it comes to narrative.
The theme for season three is that of masks -just in time for Halloween!- and each episode carries that across to a new location. The first begins with Carmen and her crew arriving in Veracruz, Mexico where they encounter a masked luchadora that happens to have the same name as Carmen’s mother. While that discovery ends up being a dead-end, V.I.L.E. is hot in pursuit and creates a big kerfuffle during a wrestling match. It’s very action-oriented and light on character development but sets things up well.
The next episode then transports us to Mexico City where Carmen intercepts a young thief being scouted by V.I.L.E. Staging thefts on Dia de Los Muertos, this woman is able to conceal herself in plain sight. This is maybe the only plotline that could be considered filler, but a thrilling action sequence that seems ripped straight from Fast and Furious keeps everything entertaining and light.
The last three episodes continue in this same manner while simultaneously playing up a brand new villain: a man named Roundabout (Trevor Devall). Introduced at the end of season two, he’s seen briefly in each episode pulling the strings behind V.I.L.E.’s latest operations. He eventually gets into a battle with Shadow-san (Paul Nakauchi) that feels like the climax of a Mission Impossible movie.
Really, I’m just stunned by how well-paced this season was. The past episodes weren’t bloated or anything, but Netflix truly cut the fat here. Not a moment goes by that doesn’t feel like it is important. When you’re not watching Carmen do her thing, you’re being treated to classic tension building tactics or watching a wonderfully animated fight scene.
As I mentioned previously, this season is a little light on any character development, but it makes up for it with how much better the animation is. I imagine the COVID situation resulted in a lower budget for this season, but instead of focusing on needlessly sticking to 10 episodes, the writers went for a more cohesive plot structure in fewer episodes. This lends itself to tons of action that is not only exciting but just plain awesome to look at.
The main drawback to all of this lightning pacing is that the conclusion feels a little rushed. Roundabout isn’t that well established before Carmen and her crew have nailed him to the wall. Counterspy agency A.C.M.E. also barely has a presence here, with Agent Devineaux and Agent Argent getting sidelined to focus more on Carmen.
Argent has also seemingly been removed from the series, leaving Devineaux to himself for the already confirmed fourth season. I’m not too upset about that decision, but the seeds planted here result in some revelation that then never comes. The teasing just doesn’t pay off and it’s very aggravating. Everything else is so well done that this lacking thread ends up distracting more than it should.
Even with that problem, Netflix has seemingly been able to hone in on what it wants from Carmen Sandiego. There’s obviously still work to be done with better fleshing out its characters and finally doing away with the educational trappings, but season three is a solid enough string of episodes for the moment. There’s likely nothing else that could have been done under current conditions, so I’m surprised I even ended up enjoying this.
I don’t know if this same momentum will continue into season four, but Carmen Sandiego is clearly not content with being merely “okay.” Maybe next time, it will be better than simply good, too.