This is a spoiler free review.
At one point in the third episode of the new Netflix Carmen Sandiego series, the characters of Player and Carmen discuss her next stop, Indonesia.
“Did you know all those islands contain the fourth largest population in the world after China, India, and the United States?” – Carmen“That’s a lot mouths to feed.” – Player“No doubt the reason Indonesia produces 70 million tons of rice a year. It’s their staple food, Player.” – Carmen
“It says here some islands are home to the Komodo Dragon, the worlds largest lizard. They can grow up to ten feet long!” – Carmen
“I’ll skip the petting zoo, but I’ve always wanted to see Wayang Shadow Puppetry. It’s over a thousand years old but still performed at festivals today.” – Carmen
Okay, that is a blatant piece of educational info dump. Yes, some of that plays into the story later but it feels like something out of a 90’s PBS show. It’s meant to entertain but also educate. Some may hear this kind of dialogue and be instantly turned off.
Those people would be missing out though because Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego is a genuinely fun way to learn about the world plus you can get a really solid action adventure series to boot. Those two don’t sound like they should go together. Hell, it almost sounds like the back of a book your parents made you buy at the Scholastic Book Fair.
Trust me, Carmen Sandiego is a surprise. It takes the foundation of the educational series PBS was pumping out in the 90’s but actually gives it a serialized story. This does wonders for making the educational aspects of the show feel organic to the plot.
In this series Carmen was raised by the sinister organization of V.I.L.E. and has only read about the world in books. Her adventures are her first real chance to see the world, so of course she’d be rattling off facts or being amazed by it all. It also plays into her ultimate objective, to only steal from the bad guys. They only see these priceless artifacts or treasures as commodities.
Carmen, throughout the opening two-parter, learns that these objects have real worth and value to the culture’s they’re from. That’s what drives her, so listing off a few facts about the places she’s visiting and the culture’s she’ll be interacting with tie into her larger objective.
And also, why not throw some facts in there? They’re fun to learn! Just because something is educational doesn’t make it boring or not engaging. I will say I was caught off guard by it since the opening two-parter does position the series as a straightforward action adventure but once I got used to it I really liked it. It’s perfect for the kid audience the series is aimed at and let’s be real; any adults watching will learn something to. Just remember how important it is to Carmen’s character and those little educational info dumps become all the more organic to the bigger story Carmen Sandiego is trying to tell.
The opening two-parter establishes Carmen’s backstory and how she ends up working against the organization that raised her. That pits her not only against her old instructors but also her friends, some that may not be as “evil” as they seem. Interpol is also on Carmen’s tail, thinking she’s much more nefarious than she seems. Carmen is aided by Zack and Ivy (a great element ported from the 90’s animated series) along with the computer bound Player.
It provides a lot of story potential; with Carmen being pursued and doing pursuing of her own all at once. After that opening two-parter the adventures are fairly self contained, though the B plots usually contain serialized elements of Carmen discovering more about her past or following the agents of V.I.L.E.
For a series aimed at kids there’s some surprising complexity to the different sides of this conflict, with one character remarking, “we live in a world where villains don’t look like villains. And heroes don’t look like heroes.” The characters are full of shades of gray and putting that on display is as powerful a lesson as any info dump about geography.
Fans of the larger Carmen Sandiego franchise will find a lot to love here. Many of the major iterations of the franchise are represented in the series. Some are bigger elements of the show (like Zack and Ivy) while others are loving easter eggs. It’s clear that while Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego is forging its own path it’s not forgetting it’s long past.
Carmen Sandiego’s animation takes a bit of getting used to, since the character designs seem so simple. However, over the course of the first five episodes we were given to review, what the animators were able to do with those designs was striking. For TV this is really solid, so if you have an initial weak reaction to it, stick with it. You might come to enjoy the style and flow of the animation as episodes progress. The action scenes especially have a great energy to them and some of the shots genuinely blew me away.
The show’s fun cast of characters and slowly developing world should enthrall kids and even teens easily. Adults may lose interest at times (the opening two episodes are a big of a slog) but if you have nostalgia for the Carmen Sandiego of old this should fill that place in your heart.
Highly recommend for those looking for solid action adventure and don’t mind learning a few facts along the way. Also if you REALLY love watching all the different ways they shoehorn in the characters saying “where in the world is Carmen Sandiego?”