Learning to Love and Loving to Learn

A review of Netflix's Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

Learning to Love and Loving to Learn

I remember asking for the Carmen Sandiego floppy disk every time I had computer lab period in elementary school. Two or three friends and I would crowd around an Apple II and do our best to guess our way to catching crooks. We never caught her, but we loved touring the world to nap V.I.L.E thieves and return cultural treasures to their rightful homes.

Montreal, as pictured in  Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego , circa 1985.

Montreal, as pictured in Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, circa 1985.

Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? (1985) also got a spinoff PBS gameshow from 1991-95 and a fun animated series, Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?, which aired from 1994-99. Now, Netflix has set the international super-thief loose again with a new episodic adventure for kids (and geography lovers).

Whereas previous iterations cast Carmen as the head of the V.I.L.E crime syndicate, Netflix takes all the familiar elements and shakes them up. The result is a curiosity-driven journey through culture that’s as fun as it is educational.

Who in the World Is Carmen Sandiego, Anyway?

This time she’s voiced by Gina Rodriguez (Jane the Virgin, Annihilation) and joined by Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things, It) as white-hat hacker, Player. The first episode establishes Carmen’s backstory and sets up the series as a cat-and-mouse adventure with a twist. Like Russian nesting dolls, there are layers to the various pursuits. VILE covets the world’s treasures, ACME chases after Carmen, flamboyant in red, and Carmen races to beat VILE to the prize.

The ACME detectives of the 90’s cartoon are recast as Boston-Irish partners of Carmen, Ivy and Zack. For opposition, we’re given Interpol’s dogged but dim Inspector Devineaux and insightful Julia Argent as foils for Carmen’s cunning.

This incarnation of Carmen is no less mysterious for being the hero of the story. She’s less of a solitary figure now but her true origins are still mysterious, even to herself.

Why in the World Should We Watch This?

The show is infectiously curious, positive, and educational — it’s everything TV for kids should be, while still managing to be great fun. In fact, enjoyment is in its DNA. The original Carmen Sandiego games were never meant to be edutainment, mere trojan horses trivia, but that’s how they’re viewed now. In an interview with Kotaku about the early days of gaming, co-creator Doug Carlston says they weren’t trying to sell games to people to make them smarter. “We wanted to sell the games we thought they would enjoy playing. One of the things we enjoyed doing was learning,” so the educational character of Carmen Sandiego grew out of that.

The show isn’t a documentary but viewers learn about things like Indonesia’s rice exports and Ecuador’s independence as the capers hum along.

Like the game it’s based on, the new Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego is meant to be enjoyed. It’s funny, exciting, and passes along knowledge of world geography and culture in the context of adventure. The value of learning is embedded in the way the show values the artefacts, locales, and, ultimately, the people Carmen encounters around the world.

It’s worth watching.

Season 1 of "Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego" is nine episodes long (22-30min. runtime) and is available on Netflix.

Cover Photo: Fortune.com

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