Netflix Review – Carmen Sandiego: WHY ON EARTH IS CARMEN SANDIEGO?

One of the greatest fictional thieves is given a new origin in a new series, but it aims way too low.

SUMMARY

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.

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The redheads are from Boston, wicked accents included.

END SUMMARY

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?

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Sometimes you just keep the formula going, but pander like hell… and it works.

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?

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At least most of the new VILE heads are some of the best characters from the old series.

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.

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For example, in Indonesia, they have 1:02 of clunky dialogue, including this graphic of a Komodo.

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!!!

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Oh, and she stole the Sydney Opera House. WHILE PLAYING BEETHOVEN.

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. 

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Although the coat reminds me more of Secret Squirrel.

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 TimeCollection of TV EpisodesCollection of Movie Reviews, or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews.

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DuckTales (2017): How to do a Reboot

They might solve a mystery or re-write history. DuckTales re-boot!

People constantly complain about reboots, but it’s not like they’re a guaranteed failure. I preferred the new Battlestar Galactica to the original, there have been who knows how many amazing film and television versions of Batman, and From Dusk ‘Til Dawn even did a solid job going from film to television. Hell, I think that Scooby Doo’s best incarnation was the 12th. Still, there’s no denying that, a lot of the time, it feels like reboots are just cash grabs aiming for our nostalgia wallets. Because of that, every time a show comes out that’s just a reboot of an old property, I’m inherently suspicious. So, when they first announced that a new DuckTales was coming out, I didn’t put a huge amount of faith in it.

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Best re-imagining since Carpenter’s The Thing

As time went by, though, I admitted that I started to get excited. First, they announced the cast for the show by having them sing an acapella version of the theme song. This both showcased the insane level of talent they managed to grab and also showed that they were paying their respects to the past series.

Then, they announced that Lin-Manuel Miranda would appear in the series as Gizmoduck, cementing the return of one of the more beloved creations of the original cartoon and having him voiced by a genius composer and playwright. They announced that Tony Anselmo would be voicing Donald Duck, giving the show ties to the regular Disney canon. They released a copy of the show’s intro sequence which was a combination of the original Carl Barks Uncle Scrooge comics with the original cartoon, but updated and redesigned, with the same theme song only a little jazzier. Oh, and they dropped the bombshell during Comic Con, just a month before the show was set to premiere, that Darkwing Duck would make an appearance, a character that people have been begging to get more of for 20 years.

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HE OWNS THE NIGHT, for goodness’ sake!

At this point, I was just worried that this was all going to fall apart. Then, they did the last thing I would have expected: They put the pilot on YouTube. Not behind a paywall, not for a limited time, they just put the pilot “Woo-oo!” online, and IT WAS FANTASTIC. Watch it right now!

“Woo-oo!” was a great first episode. It introduced us to the characters, emphasized all the differences between their current and previous incarnations, and put in a ton of wonderful nostalgia references while also being funny and original in its plot. Huey, Dewey, and Louie now had different voices, looks, and personalities, with Huey (Danny Pudi) being the closest to the original version but nerdier, Louie (Bobby Moynihan) having abandoned even the outfit from his previous incarnation and being the greedy one, and Dewey (Ben Schwartz) being a blend of old and new traits and a fame seeker. Scrooge McDuck (David “I’m the f*cking Doctor” Tennant) is now a jaded old man who wishes to rekindle the exciting, adventurous days of his youth. Launchpad (Beck Bennett) is a little dumber than his original version, but still an adorable doofus and an optimist. Donald Duck is pretty much the same, but plays a much bigger role in the series.

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And the promo images did a great job representing things.

Then, there’s Webby Vanderquack (Kate “from Garfunkle and Oates” Micucci) and Mrs. Beakley (Toks “I’m so f*cking amazing” Olagundoye). These two were basically redone from the ground up. Rather than being the young girl who carries around her doll all the time, this Webby is smart, skilled, and more athletic than any of the boys, but is socially awkward due to living in a mansion alone. Mrs. Beakley, rather than being just a live-in nanny with relatively few other character traits, is a retired version of Agent 99 from Get Smart. I’m not even joking, they have an episode that tells you that’s who she’s supposed to be.

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Hey, other shows: This is how you update female characters to reflect the times.

The first half of “Woo-oo!” showed us that, in this new universe, magic is real, Scrooge is an almost Batman-level combatant and adventurer, and that he and Donald had a falling out in the past. Flintheart Glomgold (Keith Ferguson) returns as one of Scrooge’s enemies and is shown being even more over-the-top Scottish, almost as a mockery of the fact that his nationality was changed in the original series from South African (because Apartheid). He’s also much more of a comic foil to Scrooge than a serious rival, but his brutality is raised a few levels in this version. In the second half, the group goes on an adventure to Atlantis and, upon returning, the boys and Donald move in with Scrooge.

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Oh, and we get recurring character, Manny, the headless man-horse. Now with a head.

Now, this would normally be where the Pilot just acts as a set-up for the rest of the series, but, at the last minute, Dewey moves a piece of a painting seen earlier, revealing the figure of a young female duck. Dewey, shocked, says “Mom?” as the episode ends. Yes, at the last second, the show drops the biggest two surprises on us it could. First, they’re actually going to address what happened to Della Duck. Second, holy hell, THIS SHOW IS A SERIAL. There are going to be actual story arcs throughout the series. Again, this is in the last 15 seconds of the episode and it is huge.

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Yes. Della freaking Duck, ultimate obscure trivia question, is now a focal point.

The rest of the season was a little mixed. Some episodes were amazing and had fantastic guest stars, but others didn’t really use the characters well, and I was getting a little worried that they were too hit-and-miss. However, the whole time, they were also building up plot-lines and characters, including setting up Magica De Spell (Catherine “I was the best Tennant companion” Tate) as the big bad of the season. Then, we got to the penultimate episode, “The Last Crash of the Sunchaser” which not only had one of the most intense sequences in animated history, but had an ending that led me to sit in stunned silence trying to grapple with what I had just witnessed.

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An episode of DuckTales left me emotionally devastated. WHAT THE HELL?

Then, we get to the finale and it took a bit to get going but, once it kicked into gear with Magica De Spell as the villain du jour, it was a hell of a ride. Probably the single best thing was that they had Donald Duck swallow a “Barksian voice modulator” which made him talk like Don Cheadle. He then proceeded to deliver some both hilarious and bad-ass lines (which were turned into hilarious ones by the fact that DONALD DUCK was saying them). The season ends, however, with several plot-lines still up in the air, giving them plenty to work with in the next year.

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Oh, and she basically flat-out kills one recurring character. WHAT THE HELL?

The main thing that really makes this reboot stand out is that showrunners Matt Youngberg and Francisco Angones basically went through all of the previous incarnations, from the comics to the show to even other Disney cartoons from the 80s and 90s, and kept what was timeless. They didn’t go out of their way to avoid doing things like the old show, they celebrated the things the show did well while correcting the things it didn’t. They tried new things, to be sure, some of which worked better than others, but they gave the show a feel that, while still DuckTales, was still unique. They gave us nostalgia, but they never really relied on it too much and they always made any reference still work even if you didn’t know it.

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And has Margo Martindale and Allison Janney. So many great guest stars!

They also knew that too much nostalgia could overpower the work they were doing, so they did it gently. They did re-introduce Darkwing Duck, but now he’s a character on a show within a show. However, they go out of the way to point out that the actor who played Darkwing did his own stunts, so they have left the door open to have the actor become the superhero in future episodes. This was the right way to do things, because, if you put Darkwing Duck directly into the series, there would be too much pressure to keep putting him in it and any episode he was in would be focused on him.

Overall, I think this is one of the best reboots I’ve ever seen. Check it out, guys!

If you want to check out some more by the Joker on the Sofa, check out the 100 Greatest TV Episodes of All Time or the Joker on the Sofa Reviews

If you enjoy these, please, like, share, tell your friends, like the Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/JokerOnTheSofa/), follow on Twitter @JokerOnTheSofa, and just generally give me a little bump. I’m not getting paid, but I like to get feedback.