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Review: Just Who in the World Is “Carmen Sandiego?”

Carmen Sandiego

Carmen SandiegoAs excited as I was for Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego reboot, a part of me approached the show with minor apprehension. The Carmen Sandiego I remembered was an experienced thief who constantly pulled off impossible stunts while skillfully evading the law just because she could. Having a show starring this particular type of character was something I wanted to see for the challenge of crafting a character you love despite their questionable motives, not to mention safely fantasizing about being a world-traveling Lovable Rogue thrill-seeker. Sure, what Carmen Sandiego does is wrong (even if she has moral standards), but sometimes it’s fun to indulge your inner Id. In the right hands, we could have had something here. Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego ventures off of a slightly different path, but the result is solid, if perhaps a bit underwhelming.

Raised from infancy in VILE headquarters (Valuable Imports, Lavish Exports), Black Sheep spent her entire life training under their tutelage of thievery. Despite loving the game of stealing, Black Sheep is unable to fit in, but still works her way up over the years to try for a spot as one of VILE’s top thieves. A routine day turns foul when she discovers the secret behind her home: VILE is not a school for wayward thieves, but a horrid organization determined to rule the world through unethical means. She soon goes rogue to find her past and take down VILE (which really stands for Villains International Legion of Evil.) Donning her trademark red coat and fedora, she takes up a new alias: Carmen Sandiego.

Carmen SandiegoThe tried-and-true plot of a thief stealing for the greater good gives Carmen a relatable goal and and provides cover for actions that would otherwise be frowned on. Indeed, Carmen doesn’t just steal from thieves. She ensures valuable artifacts are placed in the right hands and donates a considerable amount of cash to charities and people in need. She easily represents the voice of the many who have so little power against giant, corrupt organizations. With current events riven with political strife and rampant capitalism, her dedication and moral center is strikingly appropriate. While most of VILE’s leaders don’t have much going for them, two in particular stand out: Shadow-san, a stern master who disapproved of Carmen’s lack of discipline; and Coach Brunt, a woman who has a soft spot for Carmen and treated her with motherly affection. The former remains a persistent sour spot for the season, while the latter is one of the very few people in her life who loved her, setting up fertile ground for conflict.

Carmen SandiegoCarmen is a stellar, complex character right off the bat. She’s instantly at ease in her role as the Gentlewoman Thief, engaging in fisticuffs, high chase scenes, and low-key capers with her trademark charismatic, clever persona. This is further highlighted by the animation. The background often emphasizes greens, blues, and grays, providing a strong visual contrast to Carmen’s bright, red coat. It’s an easy design shorthand to emphasize her presence as the main character, while also lending a flamboyant touch that matches her compulsion to show off her talents. Because Carmen Sandiego is an origin story, she is prone to shortcomings she hasn’t gotten over yet. A recurring flaw involves Carmen’s compulsion to charge into any challenge if her abilities are questioned. As sincere as she is stealing for the greater good, the show still reminds us that Carmen equally enjoys the thrill of the heist, adding another layer to the multifaceted personality that is Carmen Sandiego.

The other constant in the show is Inspector Chase Devineaux, a familiar archetype of the dogged law-enforcement officer perpetually one step behind his quarry. He bumbles around trying to catch the elusive “La Femme Rouge”” while his hapless and far more competent assistant Julia Argent sighs, protests, and puts the pieces together better than he ever will. While he largely provides the show’s comic relief, there is a moment in one of the latter episodes that hint of future character development when he questions his insecurities and behavior. I’m also fond of Julia Argent’s role. The haggard Pepper Potts-like assistant to an egotistical man could have been written poorly, but she often challenges and chastises him over his baseless accusations. Numerous times, the inflection in her voice and her exasperated facial expressions indicate a woman patiently tolerating his tomfoolery, but always offering a second, informed opinion. I also think it’s clever that Chase serves as a mouthpiece for the audience, asking all the questions we are. ““Who is Carmen Sandiego”?” “”Where is she?”” “”What is her motive?””

Carmen SandiegoIt’s a shame that the rest of the characters aren’t nearly as enticing. While Carmen’s past with VILE carries the overall arc of the season and gives her an array of emotions, her relationship with her former colleagues ring false. Her classmates aren’t developed beyond their gimmicks, especially her primary rivalry with the VILE operative Tigress, who bullies Carmen but never gives a reason why. Carmen’s relationship with fellow VILE schoolmate Gray is also a huge miss. While they establish him in the origin episodes as her closest friend, he doesn’t do anything of note and is quickly pushed off to the side, leaving any development thoroughly wasted.

Then there are Carmen’s companions. Carmen has great chemistry with her assistant and confidant Player, who hacks any security or electronic access blocking Carmen’s path from his home in Ontario. He also provides her with information (and exposition) she can use at key moments, while the two constantly trade banter. His need for security puts Carmen’s globetrotting sense of adventure in even sharper relief, as she constantly finds new wonders that the world has to show her.

Carmen SandiegoSadly, Carmen’s other friends and personal assistants, Ivy and Zack, are much less compelling. While they’re a neat callback to the 90’s Carmen Sandiego show (where they were the main protagonists), they do very little beyond providing aid to Carmen in a pinch or providing comic relief. While Ivy is largely tolerable, Zack frequently trips into “Dumb Boy” tropes hard enough to be annoying. While the siblings are far from useless, they’re the weakest element of the show and never help enough. They never help enough with anything that Carmen couldn’t have figured out herself or with help from Player.

As a whole, Carmen Sandiego is a solid show with a coherent plot and gorgeous animation, but it suffers minor hiccups. The ten-episode count barely provides enough breathing space for character growth or engaging plot points. Most of the season is relegated to a Heist-of-the-Day narrative structure and while I have no problem with that type of storytelling, the season staggers a bit due to a few lackluster characters that can’t quite carry it through. Regardless, it has vast potential and any fault I have with it can be explained as a newbie show just finding its roots. Should it get renewed, hopefully season two will allow it to grow more.