Lately, news of reboots and remakes have been nothing short of exhausting. Does anyone have an original idea in their heads? However, the one exception for me has been the Carmen Sandiego getting new life breathed into it. Next year, we will be getting a Netflix series, a movie, and a line of books featuring the enigmatic and charming thief. In the case of the visual mediums, she will be brought to life by Gina Rodriguez, which is only icing on this already decadent cake.
For purposes of my own, I have spent a bizarre amount of time thinking about Carmen Sandiego. Part of that is that I am an avid replayer of horribly outdated video games, which includes my childhood favorite: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego (the deluxe edition, of course). Technically this was the first in the franchise, though I was also no stranger to the TV game show, nor the many video games that followed it.
As a result, I have the feeling that a lot of the reason for my excitement of this relaunch are more about very…specific hopes I have for it. So does that mean I should manage my expectations? Of course not! Instead, I’d like to lay out my ultimate Carmen Sandiego wish list, which should explain what I view as the greatest potential for this franchise, particularly in today’s context.
Though in truth, if even one of these items makes it in, I’ll call it a win.
This is the first on my list for the reason that it’s the “wish” I find most crucial. A played-for-straight antagonist Carmen Sandiego, while not exactly a shocking direction (stealing is bad, guys), would feel incredibly stale. Then there’s the whole aspect of it demonizing a woman of color who appears to be fighting the system—of archeology or something. Yes, it’s infantilizing to say a Latinx woman needs to be kept in this special box, especially when portrayals villains are sometimes useful, and of course a lot depends on the casting all around. But the potential for it to get bad is there, and our media history doesn’t allow for much benefit of the doubt here.
Also, Carmen Sandiego herself doesn’t lend herself to that. Yes, she’s a thief. But I know I’m not the first person to realize that she seems to have more…chaotic neutral/goodish aims. In the classic video games, she does steal things seemingly because she can, and there’s not much beyond that. But in later versions, the game-show included, it’s sometimes the case that she’s unearthed something of great value, and quasi wants the good guy ACME agents to find it.
The clearest example of this is in Carmen Sandiego: Treasures of Knowledge, which was a flash game produced just a few years after this format was doing anyone any favors. In it, she basically hacks into the ACME agents’ phones the entire time, goading them to find her in an entire lost city. Then when they “catch” her, she says, and I QUOTE: “Go ahead, put all this in a museum. But you’ll never keep me behind bars.” Then the game ends with the two ACME agents debating whether she might have had secretly good aims, the one who served as her former partner vouching for her.
Oh yes—it’s important to note that in official Carmen Sandiego canon, she had been an ACME agent before leaving to form VILE (Villains’ International League of Evil). You’re telling me these still waters don’t run just a little deep in the person who had been considered ACME’s best agent? She’d really just go form an absurdly cartoonish thieving guild for the thrill of it?
It’s not like there can’t be content written around a narcissistic thrill-seeking Carmen, but it’s more that it feels very limited in what it can explore. Instead, give us an antihero Carmen, and let her have a long play at something just out of grasp of the viewer. After all, she’s the one who remains just a few steps ahead of us at all times, right?
Absurdly Impossible Heists
Anyone who’s interacted with the franchise before may recall having to chase down thieves credited with such lifts as the Euphrates River, the rings of Saturn, and the Portuguese language. Miraculously, the cases were usually able to be solved within a half-hour format by children, even in the cases of concepts. You’d get a case about the bulls of Pamplona all going missing, and suddenly that’d be the reasonable one.
We’re sort of on a realist kick in our media. But I wholeheartedly believe that this franchise could be the one to break all of that. Bring back the full camp, and let Carmen steal the most un-stealable things or ideas possible. Let it be taken seriously by everyone in the room. “Damnit, she has the people of South Korea’s recipe for kimchi! All hands on deck!” Hell, the entire premise of these games had been that there’s an American agency devoted entirely to art theft in the first place.
I do think there’s a middle ground between the full camp I’m asking for and say, a dark and gritty procedural that happens to feature Carmen Sandiego. So I don’t want to act like this is going to make or break the relaunch. However, I miss my camp, goddamnit. Let this show be Xena’s spiritual successor, in an almost Wynonna Earp fashion. We have the world’s greatest thief running around in a floppy red hat and matching trench coat. There’s really only so much value in toning this down.
I repeat: LET THIS BE XENA’S SPIRITUAL SUCCESSOR. There is nothing more camp than time traveling episodes, and I should note that Carmen Sandiego is no stranger to time travel herself. She even has a fully functioning time machine in Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, the animated TV show, and this is to say nothing of Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego?.
The thing is, related to point #1, Carmen Sandiego has always been rather careful with her use of her Chronoskimmer (I know, I know). She’s hidden in different times or found older items for better and more engaging chases, but her own desire to alter history isn’t really present. The best example of this is from Where on Earth is Carmen Sandiego?, when one of her henchmen, Mason Dixon, steals the chronoskimmer so that he can change the outcome of the Civil War. In this episode, Carmen seeks out and aids ACME agents to stop him, so she at least possesses the bare minimum of morality.
My point is, having her unclear motivations coupled with the opportunity to explore her character in a different cultural context could be something really interesting, as long as there’s restraint in its use. If nothing else, we could have some good ol’ Legends of Tomorrow shenanigans.
Lesbian Carmen Sandiego
This is something I’ve talked about before, but there is just *something* about Carmen that reads to be as fundamentally not straight. I think it’s her jawline. And the thing is, I’m dead serious about this suggestion, so long as it’s not treated as a joke, or presented in some bizarre femme fatale kind of way opposite another female character. I think it would require a not-purely-evil Carmen in this case, to be sure. But if we have that…why not push this boundary?
In terms of Carmen Sandiego canon, it can be gleaned. Most of that is thanks to the aforementioned Carmen Sandiego: Treasures of Knowledge, where her former partner (a confirmed cat owner, guys) seems to have a…not entirely tension-free dynamic with her.
Jules: Carmen, what’s happened to you? You used to want to make the world a better place.
Carmen: That always amused me about you, Jules. Still a little frustrated that you can’t figure me out?
Honestly, overly justifying this seems weird, since we queer women don’t need a reason to exist—we just kinda do. I think it’s something that could be interesting to explore, especially if there’s an outside-the-law fighting the system angle being played. If she’s a straight antagonist, then I’m less sold, unless she’s given a co-antagonist in some kind of Harley/Ivy way. But it’s absolutely something I can’t get out of my head, and therefore it stays on this list.
Hamfisted Geography Facts
This probably goes without saying, but the Carmen Sandiego games were all educational in nature. I mean, I’m sure it’s possible to craft a coherent narrative around some random thief stealing the Dome of the Rock, but that wasn’t the focus nearly as much as providing the player with facts about Jerusalem was. Even clues for where to find Carmen would be provided in awkward riddles, like, “She went to a country known for exporting tin.” Yeah, that’s how I talk to authorities too.
However, I think it would be a shame for the relaunch to distance itself from those roots. I’m not entirely sure who the audience is meant to be for these new series—I could see producers assuming that only children would be able to grab onto something like this given the already-discussed ridiculousness inherent. At the same time, she was an icon in the 90s, so…is someone like me the target? I’m definitely more excited than my 5-year-old niece is.
Either way, there’s no age at which learning comparative geographical facts stops being useful. Frankly, it’s likely adults who would benefit more at this point, since there’s kind of a culture of shame about being uninformed on something that’s absent for children (as it should be). Plus, aren’t we always being quoted polls about how the majority of adult Americans can’t locate US territories on a map?
So yes, Carmen Sandiego relaunch, please shove in as many hamfisted geopolitical and geographical facts as possible, because we need it. Have characters talk in the same forced manner, and have ACME agents step out of the airport and go, “Wow, did you know X about this country Y we’re in now?” Then the audience either learns something, or feels smart for already knowing it. It’s a win-win that stays true to the spirit of the franchise.
The Carmen Sandiego franchise has been…a bit inconsistent in tone. This is nowhere as obvious as in the names of the characters. While the later, more whimsical games gave us Jules Argent, Shadow Hawkins, Zack and Ivy, it was the earlier games with its rather straightforward play style that were the pun machines. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? gave us VILE operatives such as Yul B. Sorry, Robin Banks, Justin Case, and the somewhat confusing Sarah Nade. Expanding from that, Where in the USA is Carmen Sandiego? introduced ACME good guides that included Dee Plomassy, Ann Tickwittee, and my all time favorite, Polly Tix. I don’t think it’s hard to figure out which I enjoyed more.
Are these silly? Of course. But as long as they stay more in the Herman Nootix direction and less so in the Rock Solid one, it’s the good kind of silly. The more warped and derivative these puns can get, the better (Kim Yoonity took me longer than I care to admit at the time). And so long as one of the names is somewhat believable, nothing would be harmed by this.
Last and not least, keep the ACME gumshoes. I’m talking the supposed wunderkinds that a damn US detective agency feel are crucial to employ.
However, my wish for this particular inclusion would actually be for them to be played in a somewhat realistic manner. In the games, the child detectives would usually have some kind of technical specialty, or were just the top of their class in spy school. Instead, I want these gumshoes to think of themselves as the Spy Kids, when in reality they’re, you know, children that aren’t quite equipped for the job. Then the adult ACME agents could grumble about getting assigned to something with them, and we’d get a rather lovely X-Men Evolution thing going.
I’m sure there’s plenty more I could add to this list, like the requirement that ACME’s history is fleshed out, or it’s explained why a crash dummy is able to head up the warrant department. However for now, these are my main hopes, and what I see as having the most potential for jump-starting this franchise back to life.
I am curious to know what others think though…why is it you’re excited for the relaunch? Or are you not? Am I only escaping reboot fatigue here because of a very specific nostalgia I have? Though I’m hopeful that’s not the case. Because if there’s one thing I’ve found with Carmen Sandiego, it’s that she’s always able to find a way to pull off the impossible. In this case, it’d be making a 90s franchise work today. It may be a tall order, but this is the woman who stole the steps of the damn tango; anything’s possible.