What in the World is “Carmen Sandiego”?

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Netflix’s recent release of Carmen Sandiego may trigger excitement in all those 80s babies who grew up with Brøderbund’s original release of the game. If you missed it, you also missed out on the 8-bit version of our red-headed villain and being called “gumshoe” by foreign strangers.

Netflix’s series casts Carmen in a different light. With no knowledge of her past, Carmen has been raised and trained by an enterprise called V.I.L.E. – no surprises when she discovers that the only world she knows is on the wrong side of the law. So she turns coat. Quite literally too. Donning her trademark red trench coat and hat, she escapes the clutches of V.I.L.E. and then spends the rest of the season trying to take them down.

Carmen is joined by a host of young sidekicks, most notably Player, voiced by Stranger Things’ Finn Wolfhard. Player becomes her long-distance information-feeder-person (what do you call these people anyway)? And between them, you usually get a good dose of what Carmen Sandiego was always about: geography. Travelling the globe with our master thief and being fed large chunks of geographical knowledge may seem gratuitous and reminiscent of Dora the Explorer. But on a personal level, as a diehard Carmen fan, it’s nice to know that Netflix has really kept to the heart of the original game.

And on that note, there are actually many other things that Netflix kept as great throwbacks. For one, Carmen is consistently being hunted by Interpol – specifically a bumbling character called Chase Devineaux. Chase wrongly believes that Carmen is the head of V.I.L.E. and makes it his mission to capture her. It’s a weird twist seeing Carmen from this angle. Having played the game in which you are basically in Chase’s shoes, it’s funny to see how inept he is, compared to Carmen’s street smarts, almost as if Netflix was having a bit of a giggle at the expense of players of the game.

But all that aside, there’s one thing that this new series does remarkably well and that’s story. There’s much more of a complex arc than you’d expect for a kids’ show. It’s not necessarily a straight good versus evil, but rather Carmen negotiating the waters between V.I.L.E., Chase Devineaux and the ACME Detective Agency that’s trying to take V.I.L.E. down. On top of that, Carmen tries to discover what happened in her past. Why was she orphaned? Where was she from? How did a V.I.L.E. agent come to raise her?  It’s these overarching themes that make it such a satisfying series for grown-ups to watch while satisfying the simple episodic needs that every kids’ show needs to have.

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