One of the greatest fictional thieves is given a new origin in a new series, but it aims way too low.
Carmen Sandiego (Gina Rodriguez) is a white-hat thief… in a red fedora and matching badass longcoat. Together with her hacker associate Player (Finn Wolfhard) and sidekick siblings Zack and Ivy (Michael Hawley and Abby Trott), Carmen travels all around the world to steal back treasures stolen by the evil organization V.I.L.E. (Villain’s International League of Evil) and return them to their rightful places.
So, if you read this regularly, you might think that I’m not a big fan of reboots, but that’s really not true. Lots of reboots manage to take characters and put them in new and interesting situations that provide something new and important for the series. The 2003 Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series provided a darker and more serious take than the 1987 version, but they both were still true to the core of the characters. The Ducktales reboot took what was great about the original series (The interplay of the main characters and the “anything is possible” world) while fixing what wasn’t so good about it (weak female main characters, repetitive plots, not having Don Cheadle). The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina took beloved characters and put them in a world where they are inherently doing more morally questionable things, but didn’t change what was fun and interesting about them. The key is that you don’t change what was awesome about the character, because otherwise why wouldn’t you just make a new one?
The creators of this show clearly disagree with me.
Throughout her history, many things have changed about Carmen Sandiego, largely due to the fact that she was originally an educational video game character who became a game show character and an animated series character. She was originally listed as a former spy, but later was depicted as a former detective who found catching criminals too easy and decided it would be more fun to commit impossibly huge crimes. Regardless of her origin, the central, and awesome, trait of the character was that she was a criminal for the thrill of it. She didn’t want riches or world domination or to spread chaos, she just liked planning the perfect heist and beating the authorities in the chase. She’d even leave clues to make it more sporting for the detectives, and allow them to battle wits with her V.I.L.E. henchmen first, not to prove their worthiness, but to build up their skills. She rarely, if ever, resorted to violence and never allowed any of her henchmen to kill anyone. In short, she was the ultimate gentlewoman thief, but she was still, always, a villain. Just check out the intro to the last series:
In this show, Carmen is still a thief, but she exclusively steals from V.I.L.E. and returns the goods to their rightful owners. The show compares her to a white-hat hacker, someone who commits a crime but for the purpose of helping people. This is probably the main reason why I don’t like this reboot, because you changed the one thing that was most awesome about the character: THAT SHE WAS THE BAD GUY. Look, I’m fully prepared to watch a show where she’s the protagonist, but I still want her to be a criminal. In this, she’s not doing it for the thrill, but because she “rejects evil.” She’s only pursued by authorities because of a series of misunderstandings and the fact that some of the officers are idiots. At one point, the detectives of ACME believe that Carmen actually is the head of V.I.L.E. as she usually is, but, again, it’s only because the detective just plain isn’t smart. Making her a pure hero removes any of the wonderful moral ambiguity of her character. She’s supposed to be a noble thief, but not a Robin Hood. In this, she’s just a hero who happens to use thievery. She might as well be Leslie Charteris’ The Saint. Why not just come up with another character (or use a character that already does that) instead of trying to capitalize solely on nostalgic naming?
I also don’t like the particular way they try to make the show “educational.” Rather than being worked organically into the plot of the episode, most of the information is just given in one single infodump that includes a bunch of awkward facts about the location that the episode is set in. Look, I want kids to be learning during the show the way that I used to learn while playing the games, but that’s not going to happen if your main education is a 30 second exchange of rapid-fire facts in a 22 minute episode. In the original, it was a number of infodumps presented as fun, short, vignettes which made sense because they were being told to the Player, a real person playing the game that made the show, in order to help him win.
For an even more personal gripe: She doesn’t steal the unstealable, for one. In almost every incarnation of Carmen Sandiego, one of her most famous traits is that she intentionally steals things that cannot realistically be stolen, like the Mona Lisa’s smile or the Orient Express. Admittedly, this was tied into her desire to just commit crimes for the challenge, something this version doesn’t share, but that was one of the more consistent elements of the series. In this, she just takes things that would actually be the targets of theft, like coins or paintings, and that just pisses me off. THIS IS THE WOMAN WHO STOLE THE BEANS FROM LIMA, DAMMIT!!!
But, let’s get into some of the things that this show did pretty well on. First, to its credit, while they missed the big picture of what made Carmen Sandiego amazing, they did at least do enough of their homework to include a lot of references from the other media. It does bother me a little that most of their new characters aren’t the same level of punny as the old ones, with the new ones even mocking that idea, but they do still have quite a few of them. Also, they got Rita f*cking Moreno, the voice actress from Where On Earth is Carmen Sandiego to voice Cookie Booker, the evil accountant, who provides this version of Carmen with her signature hat and coat, acting as a covert passing of the torch. The art style is pretty solid and, honestly, though I’m mixed on Carmen so frequently being out of her signature outfit, I think it was a good choice to show that she isn’t always “on the job.” I think it was also clever to make Player, who usually in the media represented a human playing the game that the show took place in, into a hacker who only communicates with Carmen through his computer. It keeps some aspect of their dynamic alive. Carmen is much more of an action girl in this, too, as opposed to her mastermind characterization, but that didn’t bother me much, since it fit the more “Kim Possible” version of the character in the series.
Overall, I didn’t like the fact that this reboot didn’t try to take the core of the character and put it in a different setting as much as it just changed the core of the character to something completely different but called it the same thing. If the writing had been better, maybe I could have gotten into it, but I wouldn’t recommend this show to fans of the original or to their kids.
If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time, Collection of TV Episodes, Collection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.
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