Binge or Purge?: Carmen Sandiego.
The globe-trotting jewel thief Carmen Sandiego gets a fascinating reinvention on Netflix.
Netflix has been pilfering treasures from my childhood lately, so it only makes sense they would eventually get around to the antiquities thief with a passion for geography, Carmen Sandiego. The live action show “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” which aired on PBS in the early 1990’s was a favorite of mine, teaching me to love geography and hate a capella. Seriously, if I hear “zombie jamboree” one more time in my life, I’m going on a rampage. Netflix’s version reworks the iconic antagonist of the series, turning her into an anti-hero, while delving into her backstory for perhaps the first time in the franchise’s history. While it may seem like sacrilege to reform the famous thief, the engaging plot, slick animation, and lively voice work all lead to a gem of a series.
Carmen Sandiego (2019)
A little girl is orphaned on a remote island, with only a set of Russian nesting dolls as a clue to her identity. The island is the enclave of V.I.L.E., a group of international thieves. They adopt the little girl, nicknaming her “black sheep”, and begin teaching her the ways of their order. She quickly becomes a world-class thief, but regards theft itself as a game until one day she witnesses innocents being hurt during a caper. Her growing conscience and the growing mistrust of V.I.L.E.’s senior instructors force her to choose: her adoptive family of criminals or a life on the run with her morals intact.
Episode 1: Becoming Carmen Sandiego, Pt 1.
In the present, Carmen Sandiego (Gina Rodriguez) is pulling off a series of daring heists, being unsuccessfully chased by a pair of Interpol agents. Also on her tail is a former classmate at V.I.L.E.’s island training facility, Graham, who has graduated to become a full-fledged V.I.L.E. agent code-named Crackle. When he catches up to her, he demands to know why she betrayed the order, and Carmen explains her early childhood growing up among the thieves.
The show puts forth its premise very early when the Interpol inspector asks “who in the world is Carmen Sandiego?” While the episode has many of the hallmarks of the games and live-action adaptations, it is primarily concerned with fleshing out Carmen as a character. Instead of a mature adult, she’s a young woman and updated to feel modern. As a first episode, Netflix wisely sets its hook in deep. The animation is crisp and stylish, the plot moves quickly between exposition and action, it employs both comedy and drama deftly, and there are many questions set up to encourage you to press play on the second episode.
Episode 2: Becoming Carmen Sandiego, Pt 2.
Carmen continues to recount her backstory, and the event that drove her out of the order. Having been denied the opportunity to join Graham on his first caper, she sneaks along. From her vantage point, she witnesses her former classmates assault and prepare to kill the curator of an archeological dig which has unearthed a rare gem. She intervenes, and decides she will use her training to destroy V.I.L.E. instead of joining them, taking the name Carmen Sandiego from the label of her iconic red hat.
The second episode is not quite as satisfying as the first, having the tougher chore of wrapping up the two competing story lines. The conclusion of the present day heist winds up feeling rushed and just a framing device to allow the backstory to happen. The completion of Carmen’s arc as a V.I.L.E. trainee and her moral growth resonates much better. By the end, we know the stakes and the players, though much is still concealed. It’s enough to make me want to see more, and to hope the heists get better.
Binge or Purge?
Binge. The new Carmen Sandiego makes plenty of smart nods to the long running franchise, while doing its own thing. Gina Rodriguez imbues Carmen with pluck and confidence. The world introduced in the first two episodes is rich with fascinating characters. Every character stands out and has their own mysteries attached to them. I’m hoping the heists going forward become more involved, but feel confident thanks to the amount of detail given to Carmen’s training and skill sets. The introductory two-parter feels like Batman Begins with a coat of geographical varnish and gloriously silly puns sprinkled throughout. Seriously, Graham Crackle? That’s even better than “Patty Larceny” from the PBS show!
This version of Carmen Sandiego has stylish visuals, a strong cast, and so many intriguing avenues to explore that I’m excited to keep watching.