Many people – this writer included – were somewhat irked when Netflix announced that in its new Carmen Sandiego series, the title character would be a straight up heroine rather than a villain or anti-heroine. But Netflix has proven before that it’s not to be underestimated, at least when the service actually puts in the effort.
Granted, it’s still indicative of a certain timidity in Netflix’s unwillingness to make its main character in a kids’ show an outright villain. Younger viewers have shown that they can just as easily root for the bad guy as their older counterparts, it’s just that adults generally don’t want to encourage them to. That said, there’s an even greater lack of suspense and predictability than usual when your villain can never be caught, which Carmen’s change in status goes a long way in helping to resolve.
Even bolder, Netflix makes Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) a teenager who was found abandoned as an infant and raised by the organization V.I.L.E., which prides itself on churning out the world’s greatest thieves. Carmen has spent her entire life on their island headquarters, where she is first known as Black Sheep. She’s eager to join their ranks, only to discover on her first mission that V.I.L.E. is, well…vile. They are willing to kill in order to achieve their ends, leading Carmen to flee and take up her iconic identity. After a thankfully short-lived crisis where she grapples with everything about her upbringing being a lie, Carmen decides to right the wrongs perpetrated by V.I.L.E.
This involves plenty of globe-hopping as she decides to not only steal back the various treasures V.I.L.E. has stolen, but foil their new schemes. Keeping with the spirit of the shows that spawned it, Netflix (mostly smoothly) incorporates plenty of facts about each location to give kids some education. Of course, it goes down a lot smoother when the heroine delivering them is a fun, kid-friendly combination of Robin Hood, Lara Croft, and Indiana Jones. And since every hero needs sidekicks, there’s some enjoyable ones that older viewers will recognize, which includes a hacker dubbed Player (Finn Wolfhard), and Ivy (Abby Trott) and Zack (Michael Hawley), a brother-sister duo from Boston, who are given less of a backstory than they deserve.
Carmen, of course, quickly attracts the attention of the law, including two Interpol agents, Chase Devineaux (Rafael Petardi) and Julia (Charlet Chung), as well as V.I.L.E.’s crime-fighting counterpart ACME, with the iconic Chief soon making an appearance. Chase is convinced that Carmen is firmly on the wrong side of the law, while Julia is less certain. Since the heroine is indeed operating on the outside of it at the very least, the show pokes fun at cop tropes rather than embracing them. Chase is the kind of smooth-talking cop that would be the hero on another show, but here is a bumbling incompetent who continually underestimates not only Carmen, but his very intelligent (American?) partner.
The adventures themselves are mostly a seamless blend of education, action, and fun, populated by a diversity of characters, both good and evil. Netflix may be somewhat timid about Carmen’s moral code, but it does allow her to experience a few moments that feel very perilous. Carmen gets about as roughed up as many of her male counterparts do, by both male and female antagonists. One of the standout villains is Paperstar (Kimiko Glenn), a kind of creepier, psychotic Harley Quinn type who proves a genuinely formidable obstacle for Carmen to overcome. Netflix is also smart enough not to give us all the keys to Carmen’s mysterious past, instead leaving us eager for the second season the streaming service is sure to provide.