Review – Carmen Sandiego (Season 1)

Crafting a show of any kind has its own particular difficulties, regardless of genre or format, but when it comes to “edutainment”, I think any show has its work cut out for it. Of course, crafting a show about a character like Carmen Sandiego that has a rich history in both video games and television was going to be interesting, before trying to simultaneously enrich minds. Beginning in a series of Broderbund Interactive titles in 1985, the year before I was born, I’ve always had an awareness of the elusive scarlet-clad title character, even as no one could ever seem to know where (and when) she might be. My strongest connection to the character and overall property came from Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego?, the late 1980s game show on PBS, where The Chief, played by Lynne Thigpen (who also featured in a favorite film of mine, The Warriors (1979)), instructed contestants on how to track down Carmen every episode. It was an enlightening experience, mixing geography and puzzle solving in a way that was surely as fun to watch as it must have been to be a contestant. Just typing that sentence reminded me of how much I loved that show.

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Still, when I heard that others I know were checking out a new Netflix animated series based on the property (featuring Gina Rodriguez and Finn Wolfhard, no less), it’s safe to say it got my attention upon hearing about it. I’ve enjoyed much of the animated output on Netflix for the most part, so that inspired some confidence in it as well. With only nine 30-minute-or-less episodes to start, it presented a very manageable viewing experience to attempt; alongside my studious ten-year-old daughter, we binge-watched the entire first season almost in one sitting. That statement alone goes a long way in relating how strongly we felt about the show.

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In it, we see Carmen as we never have before. The show is eponymously titled for a reason: we (finally) get some understanding of who she is and why she does what she does, and the majority of the show is with her, featured in frame. She is definitely the main character, and she makes a very interesting one at that. Now, will this version of the character align with every iteration of the property already out there? Most assuredly not, as most have painted Carmen as an enemy and a target, nothing more. Here, however, we actually witness her life and growth from childhood to now, and while in prior versions, she has been the head of the criminal organization, V.I.L.E., we see her affiliation tied to it in a much different way. The show is all the better for how it refreshes and revamps the various pieces of lore it uses throughout, as it is engaging enough on its own, while unpredictable enough to grab prior fans’ attention. There are Easter eggs and homages to the various iterations of the character within this show, and it should all make fans very happy.

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Gina Rodriguez shows some versatility here. She really came on the scene strong with her award-winning show, Jane The Virgin. I have never watched a full episode of it, but seeing how adept she is at comedy from what I have seen, her role here surprised me and showed me she can play it straight as well. That’s not to say that there isn’t any comedy here, but it mostly gets relegated to supporting characters. We see her work and interact with a white-hat hacker who helps from afar named Player (Finn Wolfhard, furthering his Netflix game beyond Stranger Things), and bickering brother and sister, Zack and Ivy (Michael Hawley and Abby Trott). Thievery is often the modus operandi, but not for the nefarious reasons one might immediately expect. No, think Robin Hood in principle, and you begin to see the take we get here. Instead of assisting V.I.L.E., Carmen and crew are doing everything they can to push them out of their strongholds and redistribute the wealth and treasures of their criminal empire to the public and the proper authorities. That important detail isn’t understood by the overzealous Interpol agent, Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi), who drags his partner, Julia Argent (Charlet Chung), all over the world in pursuit. With each episode, we see Carmen tracking down something of importance to V.I.L.E., and, in doing so, we learn more and more of her past ties to the organization and their operatives.

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I was amazed at how brisk this first season is. For the first few episodes, we are introduced to several characters, and any who will have recurring importance are stylishly highlighted with their (code)name onscreen. After that, the pace of introduction slows down, but it is then replaced by learning more about those we already met. Speaking of style, this series has it in spades. I found the animation style reminded me in ways of The Spectacular Spider-Man television series, with simplistic shapes for facial features and an interesting mix of angular drawing and slight curves. Mix all of that with vivid colors, stylized renditions of world-famous art and architecture, and a crayon/chalk-like texturing to everything on-screen, and the show definitely has personality. The look meshes well, whether a scene calls for kinetic action scenes or only dialogue; whatever happens, it all looks great. All of the voice-acting keeps the show moving, and relationships began here will likely play out with interesting dynamics in seasons to come. Basically, all of the core stuff we want from any noteworthy animated series gets off to a great start here.

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The action scenes are well-staged, and they compliment the classic spy/caper feel here. I wouldn’t quite call it all noir, but it does build on some of the trappings and associations for that genre, visually and even in the ambient music. The use of gadgets and such, as well as Player’s eye-in-the-sky advice, keep every episode engaging. Speaking of Player, he is our primary voice of that “edutainment” content I mentioned at the beginning. While I would say the show is primarily interested in its story above all else, it cleverly uses the world as a canvas, weaving together real-life locales, culture, and artifacts to keep things interesting. Pepper in comedy that mostly works throughout, and there’s something here for most everybody. With countless examples of mindless entertainment on children’s television today, this thankfully isn’t one of them. It’s obvious that the entire series is well-thought out, and as a result, it kept my attention and that of my daughter.

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Content-wise, there is no language or sexual content, but much of the action involves fisticuffs. Some of the V.I.L.E. operatives are particularly creepy, but that is mostly in how they come across, not because of some grossness in the way they are drawn. The series starts off a redemptive story that shows we can change as people, and we don’t have to continue to be a product of our background. There are no explicit ties to matters of faith (in this season, at least); still, it is interesting to think that the show can not only help people learn about the various countries of the world, but it could also show them that change is possible.

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All-in-all, I’m very pleased with where this beginning season. Some of the episodes were inevitably stronger than others, but overall, I never fully lulled during any of them. I hate to fault a show for being too short, especially as this season tells exactly the arc it needed to and ends exactly when it needs to. Still, I’m deeply bummed it’s over for now, but that’s what binge-watching does to us. With its subtle use of factoids and the flavors of world cultures abounding throughout, the show hooked me in with a globe-trotting narrative of secrets and revelations, and now, I’m left to wait months for more. It’s a show that I think kids will definitely like (and learn from), and I think their parents will love it for themselves even more. Do yourself a favor, and follow Carmen Sandiego. There’s no telling where she’ll take us, but I think it’s going to be a trip worth taking.

9.0

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