Do we really need to know the story behind Carmen Sandiego?
She’s one of those characters who, until now, was pretty much a pure icon– which is to say her charms and appeal was mostly in how she appeared and what she represented. She was a lot like Boba Fett in the Star Wars movies. She was this character who acted as a nemesis, but was mostly seen rather than actually encountered. We’re told who she is– the greatest thief in the world– and it’s our task to find and apprehend her. She has a really cool look, with her red hat and trench coat, long hair, and general mysterious vibe. She’s the sort of character who exists to allow our imaginations to fill in the gaps, making that icon our own thing in some ways. We don’t identify with these sorts of characters so much as we make them take on our identities, fantasies, or what have you.
To take such a character and actually give them a concrete history usually feels wrong. It isn’t just defining something that didn’t have definition before, it’s also making those “head canons” a bit invalid as well. We’re not just learning something, we’re also losing something in the process.
The Netflix Sandiego cartoon does all of this, and yeah, at first I was a bit put off by the idea, but it doesn’t just give Carmen a concrete identity. It totally redefines her, and in that it makes everything a bit more palatable. That’s good, because besides that initial off-putting change, there’s a lot to like in this show.
Carmen’s redefined as a thief who only steals from other thieves– namely her former “family” VILE, the evil secret society that’s top dog in this world’s criminal underbelly. Carmen’s an orphan who was taken in and raised within the confines of VILE’s island fortress. She doesn’t know anything about her biological family, her roots, or anything like that. All she knows is that she was found in Argentina, and the only life she’s really known is that given to her by VILE’s leadership. She kinda grew up as the organization’s mascot or pet– doted on by some, tolerated by others, and basically groomed to one day join their ranks. Without going into the details, not all of that takes, and she ends up running away, betraying the only family she knows, and uses her skills to foil her former family every chance she gets.
It’s all a handy excuse to allow us to follow Carmen as a main character without any real moral baggage. This isn’t a show aimed more at adults like, say, Lupin the 3rd, the show this most resembles. It has plenty of things for older audiences to key in on, but this is squarely aimed at a younger audience, and they want a hero to root for. The way they’ve redefined Carmen, they get that very sort of hero. She’s an underdog. She’s an outsider. She’s a rebel against authority, be it her former family in VILE or the various law enforcement types on her tail. She plays by her rules, and her rules are right. That’s pretty much exactly what a kid wants in a hero– someone who sticks it to everyone above them while proving to them that she’s the one they should be emulating.
Once the show gets past its two-part origin story intro, it settles in to something of a pattern. Each episode has Carmen and her crew going to a new exotic locale. Carmen, “Player,” the white hat hacker kid who acts as her techie/info guy, and siblings Ivy and Zach usually bounce off facts and trivia about said locale, which can be a bit heavy handed for older audiences, but it all sets up the inevitable set pieces to come later in the episode. If an episode mentions fish markets and high altitudes, they’re gonna factor in somehow, and usually in a clever way. And those set pieces are pretty great all around. We get car chases in San Francisco, fist fights on top of trains in India, and a scene backstage in an opera house straight out of Mission Impossible 5.
It’s a legit action cartoon in addition to playing with geographical trivia. If only the old computer games were like that. I’d have been way more into them when we’d play them in social studies class back in middle school.
Carmen herself is pretty much what you’d expect, character-wise. She’s a plucky, tough heroine type. She isn’t perfect, but she’s pretty damn good at what she does. The real character charm comes from everyone else around her. She has her own Zenigata-like figure in Inspector Chase Devineaux, who may be even more bumbling and cocksure than his Lupin counterpart. He’s not quite on the same level of incompetent as, say, Inspector Clouseau, but he’s definitely no Poirot either. His hardheadedness usually gets in the way, but it also sometimes lets him see things that others who are being more “logical” deduce away.
The villains are also pretty cool all around. There are a bunch of former “classmates” of Carmen’s who have all graduated from VILE’s thieving school who all have their own specialties and code names. They act as the cast of recurring villains, being sent out by their bosses on the VILE ruling council to do their dirty work. The coolest one is Mime Bomb, a actual mime who never talks and who uses his skills to blend in, steal stuff, and basically be a spy. None of the other kids seem to take him seriously, but given how things play out in the first season, he’s more successful than most of them. The only one who’s probably more competent is Paper Star, a flat out psychotic kid who’s use of origami starts to rival that of The Paper from Read or Die. She also has a look somewhere between Jolyne from JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure and Jinx from Teen Titans. If any of the kids turns into an out and out rival for Carmen, it’ll be her.
And I love that VILE has a full on evil ruling council. They all seem to have their specialties, and while they’re working together for their organization’s success, they also seem to have various petty rivalries and grudges of their own. One of the concocts a scheme to steal an old Ecuadorian coin not for it’s worth, which is in the millions, but so that he can have it melted down and made into cuff links that will make another council member jealous. Yeah, they want to rule the criminal underworld, but they’re also going to do it with style and by one-upping one another.
All in all, it’s a pretty cool action/adventure cartoon. All the heisting and conspiring really ticks off a lot of my boxes, and it makes me forget that the basic concept behind the whole show kinda turned me off initially. If changing Carmen Sandiego into something more concrete leads to all this other cool stuff, I’m down for it.
Funny Addendum: Carmen met Zach and Ivy during one of her earlier capers where VILE was using a doughnut shop as a front for their operations. It’s the sort of thing you’d totally expect from this sort of cartoon– evil cartoon organizations love to pretend to be innocent, benign things like that, it’s so very COBRA– but it’s also the sort of crazy ruse that the people behind Pizzagate bought into. That politicians run scummy, corrupt schemes that exploit people is very much a real world thing, but having the front be a pizza joint? That’s straight out of the Saturday Morning Playbook. It says something about that type of conspiracy freak that they’d wholly buy into the notion that the Democrats would operate a prostitution ring like that. Those types want their childhood fantasies about cartoonish villains to be true, and will fall for any theory that makes those delusions true.
Believe me, I know the feeling. Those sorts of delusions are very comforting. You just gotta be able to be comfortable with your uncertainty, rather than dive head first into the first idea that matches up with your desires.