As of yesterday, Season One of Netflix's Carmen Sandiego reboot that I wrote about extensively last week is out. I'll wait until Season Two and the live action movie are out before doing an extensive review of the whole thing, but for now I want to revisit my primary misgiving from last time: Netflix's decision to make Carmen a literal hero. How does it hold up in practice?
Okay, so despite not being crazy about that aspect, I obviously decided to go along with it and enjoy the show. And it's a very good and entertaining show and when I do a more extensive review I'll talk in detail about its positive attributes. The coolest one is that it's chock-full of references to previous Carmen Sandiego media, especially the "Where on Earth" TV series, which add some extra amusement and nostalgia for longtime fans without being distracting or confusing to anyone who doesn't notice them. Unlike, say, Jon Kasdan's ridiculous game of Wookieepedia bingo in the script for "Solo: A Star Wars Story". This is clearly its own self-contained canon apart from the other stuff, but Netflix still cares about the other stuff and it shows.
As for Carmen being a good guy - so be it. But I felt like they laid it on a little thick. Two or three episodes make the point that whenever she ends up with a bunch of V.I.L.E.'s money, she donates it to various charities and orphanages. Great, I'm glad that fictional charities and orphanages are getting this fictional money, but it seems a bit heavy-handed. It seems like Netflix is so determined to distance this incarnation of the character from the evil one who's been evil for more than thirty-three years that on top of rewriting her backstory it had to go and make her Miss Perfect. (She's not a Mary Sue, though, because she needs other people's help sometimes, so that's a relief. It was okay for the original Carmen Sandiego to be a Mary Sue because she was evil, but not too evil.)
There's a much bigger problem, though, and maybe Netflix will do something clever to resolve it in Season Two, but if so it should have at least been mentioned at some point in Season One to assure the audience that the writers know what they're doing. An apparent massive plot hole that I found a bit distracting runs through all nine episodes.
(Very minor spoilers follow)
Carmen uses her thieving and sneaking skills to fight the Villains' International League of Evil, V.I.L.E., after defecting from them. They're perfectly aware of this and they hate her, so that's not a reason for acting secretive about it. Yet law enforcement, mostly in the form of Interpol/ACME agent Chase Devineaux (whose name is one of the great references to earlier media), thinks she's working with V.I.L.E. and continuously tries to arrest her. And she does or says nothing in any of the episodes to correct this misconception. She lets Devineaux and everyone else who doesn't know her personally think she's a bad guy.
Sure, sometimes she's in a hurry chasing the bad guys while the good guys are chasing her, and doesn't have time to explain. But that's not the case in the first episode, where Devineaux shows up while she's in the act of robbing a warehouse that happens to be owned by V.I.L.E. and full of already stolen items. For no apparent reason, instead of stopping to chat with him and explain what she's doing, she acts like the criminal he thinks she is and makes a run for it. There are also lulls between capers where she gets to relax a little and could contact the authorities herself, but doesn't.
So Carmen has more enemies than she needs to have. She has more obstacles than she needs to have. She could easily rectify this situation. She could not only get law enforcement off her back, but join forces with them. She could share with them her substantial knowledge of V.I.L.E. and they could share their resources. Maybe they're unwilling to work with a vigilante like her, but that isn't explained or even hinted at. Maybe she enjoys challenges so much that, like her predecessor, she deliberately makes things harder for herself - but she's also causing unnecessary stress for Interpol and ACME and diverting their time and resources away from actual criminals. Guess how many murderers and rapists have gotten away because of you, Miss Perfect. Go on, guess.
Maybe they just wouldn't believe her. But it shouldn't be too hard to convince them of her true intentions if she just shows them her results. Devineaux's assistant Julia Argent, the brainy female foil to his foolish machismo, already voices her suspicions several times based on the evidence from crime scenes that Carmen is actually working against V.I.L.E. And Devineax always dismisses her hypothesis with typical male arrogance. But they wouldn't even need to have this discussion if Carmen clarified it for them from the beginning. Maybe, just maybe, Devineaux persists in thinking she's a criminal because she runs away, sometimes gently taunting and/or incapacitating him in the process, every time he gets close to her.
I mean, I don't expect perfect logic from a cartoon, but this plot hole is so woven into the basic premise that it's distracting for me. Like in one episode, a three-car chase ensues with Carmen going after a V.I.L.E. agent and Devineaux going after her, and it's supposed to be amusing but I just kept thinking how Carmen brought this on herself for no reason. By the final couple episodes it reaches absurd proportions, as complications arise that could have been easily prevented if she would just freaking talk to Devineaux.
Will you fix this in Season Two, Netflix? Will you give some explanation for this Carmen Sandiego's apparent idiocy and take it as an opportunity to teach children about open communication? That was one of life's hardest lessons for me as an adult, but since nobody else in my life seems to have learned it, it's done me very little good.
Because some of my earliest memory fragments - I'm talking two, three years old - are about the first Carmen Sandiego game show, it didn't give me a warm fuzzy feeling last October when a Pumpkin Walk exhibit devoted to the greatest thief of all time prompted a couple of little kids nearby to ask, "Who the heck is that?" This underrated and unappreciated character has been on a bit of hiatus, it's true, but since it's only a matter of time before every piece of media ever created by humans gets twelve sequels, a reboot, and/or a remake, Netflix is stepping in to introduce her to a new generation. Yay! Mostly.
Make no mistake, I'm excited to watch this. But I also want to critique a little, because that's what people come to my blog for, no? Okay, so in case you were too lazy or unable to watch the trailer, it's basically about how Carmen Sandiego attended a thief school called V.I.L.E. but turned against it when she realized that crime isn't a game. She decided to only steal from other thieves, to protect artifacts. And Netflix is advertising this series as the backstory for the very same lady in red we all should know and hate to love, okay? So I'll overlook the minor continuity problem of her altered skin tone and facial structure.
But Netflix seems to be deliberately ignoring a far more crucial piece of information...
CARMEN SANDIEGO IS A VILLAIN.
Or a villainess. Are we still allowed to say that? No one would deny that she's villainous, but is she a villainous villainess?
Anyway, I can kind of appreciate what Netflix is doing here. I presume this show is targeted toward a younger demographic that doesn't really understand moral complexity, and we don't want them consuming media that teaches them bad is good and good is bad.
The fact is that humans are morally complex. Nobody is all good or all bad, and in fiction, cranking this paradox up to eleven makes characters oh so fascinating. I wish Netflix had gone this route.
Here's how I fantasize, I mean imagine Carmen Sandiego, which, though there is no overarching cohesive canon in this franchise, is largely drawn from the aforementioned TV series, the comics, etc. She's a somewhat eccentric, somewhat amoral genius of larger-than-life proportions. Crime is literally a game to her, something she does to challenge herself for fun, since catching criminals as an ACME detective was too easy for her. In one of the TV episodes she breaks into the latest high-tech vault and doesn't steal anything, just because she had to take the challenge. Then she accepts a challenge to give up on her high-tech gadgets altogether and steal things the old-fashioned way. She steals the unstealable, the impossible, the unthinkable, but she rarely steals anything that will hurt someone. She steals artifacts and landmarks that aren't owned by any one person. In another episode, she buys something she needs for a theft when she could easily shoplift it. She's not making anyone go hungry.
And because crime is a game to her, she goes out of her way to leave cryptic clues for the detectives following her, and doesn't begrudge them in the slightest for tracking her down and recovering what she stole. Remaining calm and optimistic, she signs off most episodes with a friendly "Until next crime." She even saves their lives more than once when they're in trouble, and yells detective Ivy's name out in panic when the latter slips from her grasp hundreds of feet off the ground. She's never killed anyone. Neither she nor any of her henchmen are even armed. And though the comic series tragically only lasted four issues, it had time to show her display even more of a conscience than that:
(Note: This comic was made in the mid-nineties. A black girl growing up to become President of the United States must have seemed impossible then, but now, in 2019, it's only half as impossible.)
(Note: That remark was intended only as a sardonic commentary on the United States that has nothing to do with anything else in this post.)
And of course, her stylish and iconic outfit is impossible not to like, am I right?
Granted, on some occasions Carmen Sandiego is more evil than others. In the creepy "Word Detective" game, she captures ACME agents and puts them in a machine that scrambles their speech into gibberish as part of her mission to create world illiteracy, which is creepy. I'm not arguing that she's not a villain. She is a villain, and that's entirely the point, and it makes her awesome because she's a fictional character. I realize there's a risk of sending that message to impressionable children who might then grow up to steal Mount Rushmore, but...
What more do I extrapolate from these clues in previous Carmen Sandiego media that Netflix has chosen to diverge from, as is admittedly their right? What do I think really drives this character, besides boredom? I think she enjoys her status as a villain a little too much. I think she craves attention and recognition for her brilliance, whether she'll admit it to herself or not. I think she knows deep down that she has a good heart, but she tries to quash it because she has an image to maintain. She overcompensates by running an organization called "Villains' International League of Evil" or "V.I.L.E" - heavyhanded much? (In the Netflix series, for some reason V.I.L.E. has been changed into a thief school that Carmen didn't create but attends and then rebels against.) I think she builds up this image as an amoral mysterious figure of mystery and constantly eludes capture because she has a proverbial wall around her tender heart to stop people from hurting her like they hurt her in the past.
Now I get what my therapist meant about projecting myself onto fictional characters.
Okay, so I have my own fantasies, I mean ideas about what this franchise should look like. If I somehow magically had the resources and expertise to do so, I would forgo cartoons and TV shows in favor of at least twelve live-action movies. The potential of live action hasn't been fully explored here. It would be a realistic, gritty portrayal of the Carmenverse with the latest special effects and action sequences worthy of Indiana Jones or James Bond, but with the same bizarre humor, tortured puns, and ludicrously impossible thefts that the shows and books and games deserve to be more famous for. It would be as much of a paradox as Carmen Sandiego herself. The movie would spend equal time following her and an agent like Stan Packer from the audio games who drives himself half-mad trying to catch her in movie after movie. And she would commit crimes, like always, but she would show her redeeming qualities and have occasion to thwart far worse villains than herself. And somewhere along the way she would open her heart just enough to let in a certain Waldo (or Wally outside the United States), who would later be killed, crushing it.
And then... in the final movie (spoiler alert)...
Packer finally captures her. Whether because he got lucky or she got careless, it's hard to tell. But she's getting bored of her life of crime anyway. Like her previous life as an ACME detective, it's just too easy. She's pulled off so many of the greatest heists in history that it's getting old. So she resigns herself to her fate and, with a smile, holds out her wrists to be cuffed.
Packer hesitates. This is what he's worked for all this time, the culmination of his career, his key to fame, and yet...
For some reason, he can't bring himself to do it. Maybe because of the good she did for the world in the previous movies, or maybe just because putting her in jail would be like putting a butterfly in a cage, he growls at her to "Get out of here." She tips her hat and does so. Packer stares off into the distance where she disappeared for a while, then turns and walks home. Cue wistful music and roll credits. Carmen Sandiego is never seen again.
...until the next few movies after the final movie. It turns out she cryogenically froze herself and set the alarm for a few hundred years. Now she's ready to have a bunch of cool adventures in space.
Since I don't magically have the resources and expertise to do that, I have to content myself with criticizing other people's efforts. Look, I'm excited for this series regardless and I wish it great success, but not so much success that Disney buys it and ruins it. Seriously, Disney, how do you manage to make a Star Wars movie flop at the box office? Not even George Lucas managed to do that. Please leave Carmen Sandiego alone. There are rumors of a live action movie to go with this series, so I hope that happens too.
Am I taking this too seriously? Of course. Because this and other fantastical fiction franchises just so happen to be approximately two thousand percent less depressing than real life. Sorry not sorry.
I must have watched more TV when I was really little than I thought, because I remember a bunch of shows. "Adventures from the Book of Virtues", "Arthur", "Barney", "The Big Comfy Couch", "Bill Nye the Science Guy", "Lamb Chop's Play-Along", "The Magic School Bus", "Mr. Rogers", "Pappyland", "The Puzzle Place", "Reading Rainbow", "Sesame Street", "Shining Time Station", "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego", "Wishbone", and "Zoom". You've probably heard of most of those except "Pappyland", which is so obscure that neither the writer nor any of the puppeteers and actors have Wikipedia pages. As far as I can tell it was never broadcast outside of New York state. On top of that, I was two or three when I watched it, and remembered literally nothing except that the protagonist had a magic paintbrush or something and a bear and a turtle once argued "Right!" "Left!" "Right!" Left!" So finding it on the interwebs was extremely difficult.
I don't remember much about "Carmen Sandiego" either, except for the late Lynne Thigpen's ACME Chief (probably the first black person I ever saw) and the Rockapella song. So I knew Carmen's name long before I knew about the city in California and that caused a bit of confusion down the line. Sometime during middle school, Rockapella actually came and performed for us in an assembly so that was sweet and piqued my memory.
Why thank you ^_^
I don't think I would have much interest in that show now, since it's about a bunch of kids answering geography trivia questions, but having dabbled in some of the books and computer games since then I am kind of obsessed with the franchise as a whole and especially its protagonist. Since I'm also obsessed with music, you can understand my joy at discovering a couple of out-of-print music albums dedicated to the series. The first, released the year before I was born and appropriately eponymously titled:
To my knowledge all of the songs are original to this album (one is a Frank Sinatra cover but this version is original to the album). Only one, the aforementioned theme song that closes the album, is directly related to Carmen Sandiego, but most of them are geography and/or travel themed. And then there's "The Violin". In catchy Celtic fashion it tells the story of a guy who grows up under pressure from his parents to learn to play the violin before they will truly accept him, and then his wife leaves him for someone who can play the violin, and then (SPOILER ALERT) he drowns in an shipwreck and his last thought is that next time he'll learn to play the violin. All right then.
The year after I was born (if you're clever, you can look up both release dates of and extrapolate the year I was born) came this album:
Again, only the closing song is about Carmen Sandiego. Appropriately titled "Carmen's Song", it's an alternative theme that pales in comparison to the original but is still catchy and awesome, which just speaks to how catchy and awesome the original is. And guess how many songs follow the album's space theme? I'll tell you how many: one. They Might Be Giants chips in "Why Does the Sun Shine (The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas)" from their EP of the same name, covering the original from the 1959 children's science album "Space Songs". Other than that, again, I believe all the songs are original to this album. More than half of them feature the TV show's host Greg Lee. He sings about eating cake for breakfast, because by this point apparently they'd given up any pretense of trying to stay on topic.
And what a topic! I hate to love her, you know, because stealing things is bad and not a trait to admire, but Carmen is just the best at it. She makes Gru look like an underachiever. "The moon? That's cute. I stole Saturn's rings and the Great Red Spot of Jupiter." Like Boba Fett and other mysterious cool people, her backstory varies depending on the source, but usually the gist is that she was a morally upright ACME agent until she got bored and defected to do something more exciting.
That was one of the smallest things she ever stole. It was onward and upward from there. Granted, as alluded to she does have help. She runs the Villains' International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.) with a bunch of pawns with puns for names, like "Morton U. Bargandfore" and "Hugo First". But she's got more brains than all of them put together. She's the driving force, the glue, the mastermind of all masterminds. And I'm sorry, but she will always be much, much cooler than anyone who fights against her.
This artwork obviously isn't official but I made it official in my own little fantasy world, and to me it summarizes the awesomeness that is Carmen Sandiego. That level of confidence that she can and will escape from any situation unharmed (at least until she develops colon cancer at age fifty-three, forcing her to learn humility and re-evaluate her entire life) is just breathtaking. I don't know what this artwork is called, but I call it "Don't Shoot, I'm Glamorous".
Now for the question that must have occurred to everyone by this point. What man could ever be worthy of such a goddess of thievery? None, of course, but just as she took pity on incompetent villains and let them into her secret organization, so too she found room in her heart for someone. All of this is totally canon.
They sat down to talk and quickly discovered that besides the physical chemistry, and notwithstanding Carmen's immense superiority, they had a shocking amount of stuff in common. This is fiction, after all, so I guess it's okay to say that they were soulmates.
Waldo eventually got up the courage to share his feelings. He tried to be all smooth about it. "Carmen," he said, "you've... stolen my heart."
She rolled her eyes, because she'd heard that one at least eight hundred times before. But at the same time she failed to suppress a blush and a smile, because he had stolen hers too. And it was cute how he always paid for stuff that she would have just taken anyway.
But Carmen Sandiego couldn't stay in one place for long, and where she was going, Waldo couldn't follow. For the first time she felt torn between love and duty. But when her decision was made, she took comfort in Waldo's parting words:
And they did, three years later. Waldo had been tormented by her absence day and night for the entirety of those three years, thinking of her in his waking moments and dreaming of her as he slept. He knew better than to let her slip away again. He proposed to her right then and there. She said yes.
"I'm sorry," he said, "this was kind of rushed, so I haven't got a ring yet, but -"
Carmen gave him a dismissive wave of her hand. "Been there, stolen that. I took them from Saturn, remember?"
"Er - right." Waldo was a little more at ease now, seeing how well she was taking this. "I meant one for your finger, with a diamond in it."
"Ha!" Carmen said. "Diamonds aren't worth nearly as much as diamond companies want you to think they are. Besides, if I wanted one, I would steal a jewelry store franchise." But then a worse thought occurred to her: what would this mean for her lifestyle? Could she really settle down? She had missed Waldo, to be sure, but she was certain she would miss her globetrotting thievery just as much. She felt torn now between love and fear.
Carmen wasn't used to trusting people. In her line of work, trusting people was a good way to die. But she was truly in love, and so she chose to take a leap of faith, and found that her new husband was true to his word.
Books and television came to replace Carmen's real adventures, and eventually she came to accept that and embrace her life with Waldo. But "happily ever after" doesn't last as long as it used to, and there is no rest for the wicked...
Carmen Sandiego came out of retirement, with Waldo as her redundant yet loving sidekick, to find her lost child in the most epic adventure of her entire career. If it ever gets out of development hell, this adventure will be depicted on the big screen in "Carmen Sandiego Steals the Universe". If successful, it will be followed by a direct-to-video sequel, "Carmen Sandiego Develops Colon Cancer, Learns Humility, and Re-Evaluates Her Entire Life". The title isn't finalized. The closing scene is, though (SPOILER ALERT):
Carmen manages to keep her eyes open a few moments longer to look at Waldo. He looks a little different from when they met but, like her, he's only improved with age. She thinks of all they've been through together, of his unflinching loyalty to her through thick and thin from the first moment he offered her that drink. She sees the love in his eyes and the pain that probably surpasses her own. And with her final breath she says, "Maybe your heart was the biggest thing I ever stole after all."
I can't believe I just made myself cry with my own writing.
She will also star in a few non-canon crossovers just for fun, because every franchise will become even cooler with her in it. For example, what could be better than her stealing the artifacts that Indiana Jones recovers? She would probably get to them first. She would steal not just the Ark of the Covenant, but the entire Well of Souls. And you just know that despite their initial disagreements they would end up working together and making out (this would be before she met Waldo).
"We're not all that different, you and I," Carmen says to Indy as they catch their breath after fighting off eighty-seven Nazis. "Both of us have devoted our lives to stealing things. The difference is that I'm much better at it than you."
"The difference," Indy growls, refusing to look at her, "is that I am a tenured professor of archaeology. The artifacts that I st- that I recover go into a museum. To be shared with the world. To enrich, to enlighten. Or at least they would if they didn't always get taken away first."
"Such nobility," Carmen says, letting out a tinkly little laugh as she sees that she's gotten under his skin. "But does the end goal change the fact that these things don't belong to you? That you're taking them from where their rightful owners left them for a reason? And do tell me more about how an archaeologist's toolkit consists solely of a bullwhip and a revolver."
Indy doesn't have a snappy response ready. Somehow no one has ever called him out on that before. He winces to his core as Carmen laughs again, louder this time. She's almost as bad as Marion.
To Carmen Sandiego, as has been readily demonstrated, space and time are as easily traversed as an empty dirt road. So it is that she also finds herself a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. After grappling with the Nazis, she's developed a fondness for taking on evil dictatorships, and when she sees how the Galactic Empire is cracking down on thieves she knows she has to take a stand. She misses working with lesser beings so she enlists with the Rebellion and quickly demonstrates her value to them.
"You've got the Death Star plans?" the hologram of General Dodonna says breathlessly.
Carmen keeps a straight face. "Well, not exactly."
General Dodonna fails to keep a straight face. "Not exactly? How so?"
Carmen smirks a little. "The mission you gave me was much too easy. I decided to do something more worthy of my skill set."
Now General Dodonna goes ballistic. He isn't normally the type to do so, but the Rebellion placed its hope in Carmen Sandiego and now it appears she's let them down for no good reason. "Too easy? Are you [redacted] kidding me?? Your mission was of unspeakable importance! Trillions of lives are at stake here, Carmen! What, pray tell, was 'more worthy' of Your Holiness?"
Meanwhile, on Coruscant...
"Hang on, I gotta take this." A meeting with two of Emperor Palpatine's advisers has just been interrupted by an important phone call. "Vader! How's my favorite Sith?" He leans back in his desk chair, relaxed, feeling that life is good and all is right with the galaxy now that - "Whoa, whoa, whoa, huh? She what? Are you trying to be funny, Vader? I - yeah, yeah, real funny, ha ha. Look, I'm very busy right now, and - Vader, this isn't funny anymore. How stupid do you think I am? I didn't get to be ruler of the galaxy by being gullible. Yeah, whatever, bye." Palpatine hangs up and rolls his eyes at his advisers. "That moron's trying to convince me that someone 'stole the Death Star'. Isn't that the stupidest thing you've ever heard?"
They laugh. "Yeah," Mas Amedda says. "Even stupider than most inhabited planets having only one type of terrain."
"Right?" Palpatine says.
In conclusion, that's why Carmen Sandiego is my heroine and I want to be just like her when I grow up.
Rockapella - Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?
Because what else could I possibly close with? Do it, Rockapella!
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C. Randall Nicholson
This is where I occasionally rant about life, the universe, and/or everything. I'm a white cisgender male and a Latter-day Saint, so you can hate me without guilt, but I'm also autistic, so you can't. Unless you're an anti-vaxxer, in which case the feeling is mutual.