Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego Review

My first reaction to hearing of the new release of Carmen Sandiego on Netflix was not a good one.

I learned of it when a YouTube entertainment commenter popped up on my news feed watching the revamp, and according to them, the infamous super villain had taken on a heroic role and was implied to be working with ACME.

As old fans of the computer games, live action kids game shows and the original tv series remember, ACME Detective Agency is the fictional agency dedicated to capturing outrageous supervillains, usually members of V.I.L.E. (Villains International League of Evil), lead by Carmen Isabella Sandiego.

While the educational computer game series and subsequent game show kept the character mysterious and evil it was the ‘90s TV show “Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego” that gave the cynical supervillain a more dynamic character and back story.

This version produced an archetype super villain with an honorable code involving stealing for the “thrill of the chase.” While Zac and Ivy, two ACME members guided by The Chief and The Player, are able to get back most of Carmen and V.I.L.E.’s thefts rarely ever are they able to hold the thieves in custody for long.

Towards the end of the series not only does the show delve into Carmen’s orphaned upbringing, but it also has Carmen teaming up with Zac and Ivy to face off against her less moralistic villainous counterparts.

While the original let the viewers see a small glimpse of Carmen as a hero, subsequent episodes and genres always brought her back to her criminal roots.

So I was a little apprehensive about the idea of a series-long supervillain turned hero. However, after finishing the first season, I was pleasantly surprised.

Carmen’s Origins

While Carmen Sandiego is the namesake, the shows she’s appeared in previously had kept her as a background player. However, this isn’t the case in Netflix’s version that brings her from the shadows to the forefront as the main character, an idea that also left me apprehensive as I didn’t care for the idea of the ruined mystic.

Carmen Sandiego’s past is rarely touched aside from her winning a bunch of money as a child on a game show, growing up an orphan and traveling the world. Each genre released under her title has brought a little shift to her back story but none more so than Netflix’s “Carmen Sandiego.”

This new rebirth brings with it a much younger Carmen who starts as an orphan raised among thieves and criminals. She later escapes and chooses to use her powers of thievery for good; stealing from thieves and attempting to reunite the world with famous historical artifacts and educational objects like the Eye of Vishnu. This comes from just the first two episodes alone.

All is explained including her iconic name to her infamous red attire. However, having been found as a baby in Buenos Aires with Russian nesting dolls as her only belongings her origins still remain as much a mystery to her as the viewer.

While helping society at large Carmen still exists outside the law and as such is still sought after by police, ACME and her old organization V.I.L.E., the latter two of which the world doesn’t even know exists.

This keeps Carmen still seen as a criminal in the world’s eyes giving the show the new age idea of good and evil being a matter of perception.

As the chief says at the end of episode five, “A harsh reminder that we live in a world where villains may not always look like villains nor heroes like heroes. So it is imperative that ACME see the world in shades of gray.”

Overarching Diversity

Some shows receive a lot of bad publicity for not being culturally diverse while others try and create a sense of forced diversity that doesn’t feel real.

“Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego” was at the forefront of cultural and ethnic diversity with other classics like “Captain Planet” and “The Magic School Bus” by exposing kids to various cultures around the world and people of multiple backgrounds in an authentic way.

This new version not only provides characters of a diverse background but a voice cast just as appropriate, something the original didn’t work so hard to do. Latina lead character, Carmen Sandiego is voiced by Gina Rodriguez, an actress of Latina decent and is still to this day one of the few leading Latina main characters.

She is, unfortunately, a villain but the character still supports the case that any women can possess equal quantities of intelligence and prowess that a man can.

Alongside Carmen Sandiego is her comrades Zac and Ivy from Boston. One of her rivals, Detective Chase Devineaux, is from France and voiced by Rafael Petardi, a native of Montreal, Canada. He is assisted by Julia Argent voiced by Charlet Chung with a similar ethnic background.

The Chief who took the form of a disembodied digital head in the classic cartoon is now an African American character voiced by Dawnn Lewis with a similar tone and mannerisms of Lynne Thigpen’s live-action interpretation of the character on the classic game show; a role made so iconic Lynne Thigpen reprised her role and was added to remastered version of the classic computer games.

And this doesn’t include the diverse V.I.L.E. leaders who come from all walks of life including America, Asia, France and more. Doctors and professions across the globe come with various ethnicities, nationalities and genders.

With global travel, “Carmen Sandiego” is capable of exposing children to numerous cultures and nationalities that are not only authentic but educational and respectful. It demands of its audience the same respect of cultures and people they interact with every day.

Despite the program being made for the family, I am intrigued to see how this newer show will push the bars of diversity in areas of religion, sexual orientation and more.

Education

While the original computer games were wild innovations for their time they were not purposely created for education despite the creators being interested in helping younger audiences learn geography.

It wasn’t until teachers across the U.S. started purchasing the game for their classrooms did the developers realize what they created.

While the original computer games and live-action game shows still hold most of the educational efforts by requiring players to recite knowledge to progress in the game, both versions of the TV shows still provide history, geography and culture exposure and education in the ways of fast facts presented to the viewer by The Player, The Chief and Carmen herself. Most objects stolen by Carmen and V.I.L.E. hold great historical and cultural significance.

The education never seemed forced and is perfectly accented even in its modern interpretations.

In fact, Carmen as a character and series guides the audience down a path of questioning one’s country and how science and doctors can provide knowledge to the world while balancing respectful treatment and cultural boundaries of historic lands and objects, something we still struggle with today.

Art Style

The classic ‘90s cartoon has a very real aesthetic appearance while the newer Netflix revival brings with it a unique art style. Starting the show is a striking introduction of Carmen fleeing capture in her iconic red trench coat amongst an almost black and white city and landscape.

This contradiction in color to create a vivid display continues through the show. Daring colors in all aspects mixed with striking inconsistent lines and lack of real-world perspective create an always eye-catching environment for the viewer.

This almost cartoony perspective is lost when we are exposed to iconic historical artifacts like the Magna Carta and paintings by Johannes Vermeer which take on a much more realistic quality.

The design work is done by Chromosphere Animation which includes visual designer Kevin Dark who worked as an art director for “Steven Universe” and as a visual development artist for “Big Hero 6.”

The first season finishes with a plot twist, an iconic moment placing Carmen as the world and ACME’s would-be villain and leaves the series with an open ending.

The series so far has received a 93 percent from Rotten Tomatoes and a second season of the show was ordered by Netflix on February 15, 2019.

Despite my apperception due to many changes to the original formula, I am glad I gave this series a chance and I can suggest it as a good educational show for the family and classic fans of the franchise.

Season one is only nine episodes long and leaves you wanting more with so many unanswered questions, but none so important as, Where In the World IS Carmen Sandiego?

James Novotny
Staff Writer

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