Netflix's Carmen Sandiego: I hate that I like you.

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Netflix's Carmen Sandiego: I hate that I like you.

Post by MysticJhn » Mon Jan 28, 2019 3:00 am

When I first saw the trailer for Netflix's new Carmen Sandiego cartoon, I was not a happy camper.
I thought it was all wrong. I have been a fan of the franchise since the classic PC games of yesteryear,
and thought it was long overdue for something new.
Netflix has been killing it with television, movies, and animation lately, so surely them making a Carmen Sandiego cartoon could only be good.
Then I watched the trailer and hated everything about it.

For one, Carmen was now a teenager, no older than maybe 17 or 18.
Carmen Sandiego was ALWAYS an adult in all the games, tv shows, and products until now.
On top of that, the trailer not only changed her V.I.L.E. organization from her personal band of thieves to being a crime school.
A crime school? What a stupid premise. On top of that, she was going to be AGAINST V.I.L.E. in this show.
The trailer really promoted the fact that she was the good guy, stealing things to prevent V.I.L.E. from stealing them.
Why? Again, she had always stolen for her own wealth previously, even if she did it in over the top ways to be infamous.
I thought if they want to make her an anti-hero, she should be like the anime character Lupin III.
In that show, Lupin is still a thief that's the hero, but he steals to make himself rich and famous, even if he does stop even more
dangerous and evil baddies on occasion and lead to their downfall. That would be a better format.

So, premiering on January 18th, I finally decided to give it a fair try anyway. I like to give cartoons at least 1 episode for a fair judgment.
Turns out this show had a two-parter as its premiere, so I watched the first 2 episodes. Honestly, in only a 9 episode season you
couldn't make the first episode an hour long special and put in an extra half hour episode? It's Netflix, they have no air time restrictions
like a regular television series has.
Anyway, the first two episodes mainly deal with introducing the main characters, with Carmen giving her own backstory through flashbacks.

I'll keep the spoilers to a minimum anyway, but you've been warned.

Alright, so, by the title of this thread, it's clear and obvious it wasn't the catastrophe I expected. It could have been a lot worse.
I did wind up watching all 9 episodes of the first season, so there's enough there to hook me.
Story wise it does go generally as you'd expect from the trailer, although they do spring a few things along the way.
The show is mostly episodic, with Carmen trying to stop a different specific V.I.L.E. heist each episode, but the main plot is overarching.
They do continue with certain elements over the season, and things Carmen finds out or the results of previous episodes do matter next episode.
Things particularly matter in the next episode once the main Interpol investigator, whom they jokingly named Chase, gets recruited into
that ACME agency thanks to his ability to track Carmen Sandiego better than anyone else so far. He's a comic foil, though, as most his
advancements come at the help of his junior Interpol partner, and she eventually gets recruited with him.
He works well as a bumbling detective for Carmen while at the same time not being entirely incompetent.
He's almost too stupid to believe sometimes, and arrogant to a fault, but he's a needed element.
Oddly there are allusions to him being a pill popper at dangerous levels, as once mentioned by his assistant, but instead of pills
the show goes child friendly and he instead pops mints. Any adult watching will know it's meant to be pills to keep him level.

That's one thing about this show that I don't like. You really know its target audience is underage.
ALL the main characters that aren't cops are either 17 or 18 (ages are never specifically stated,
but V.I.L.E. seems to be a high school except for the faculty).
There's no real adult subjects or jokes, and Carmen herself, a beautiful femme fatale in all other versions, is a cocky teen.
Her gang are teens, her V.I.L.E. operative competition are teens.
It gives everything this TeenNick vibe to it, and as a 36 year old man, I'm not in favor of the "all adults are bad guys" thing.

Not helping that TeenNick vibe is the animation style.
It has this look that makes it VERY obvious it's Flash animated. Sometimes it's used well, but other times it stands out in a bad way.
That sort of Flash animation where everything is squarish and there's no hand drawn natural feeling to it.
It even causes some of the chases to feel like marionettes running.
Now I don't have anything against the use of Flash or computer animation these day, that's just how the industry is.
However, some shows still feel natural and well done, and this just feels cheap.
It's not entirely bad, it does work well when it works well, but when compared to other modern animated shows, it's lacking in quality.
There's a lack in attention to detail that feels lazy. The biggest example is their substitute background text.
Now in better shows, the text in the background, signs, billboards, newspapers, computer screens, etc will be in real language.
Sure, it might be just filler text that's nonsensical, but they put in effort.
In this show, whenever there's background text, or even text a character is supposed to be reading on a computer screen,
it is replaced with these nonsense characters that look out of Star Wars.
Not only is the font some imaginary Star Wars font, but it's not even actual character replacement, it's not even a code.
In a show where they put in real effort, this code would be decipherable. Gravity Falls did it, and it's an older show.
No, this isn't even a simple replacement filter for regular letters, it's all just random gibberish.
It feels like lazy, cheap animation when they can't even be bothered to write actual words in their background text.

Another thing that bothered me was the character that calls himself Player.
Early on in the first episode Flashback, young Carmen finds a cell phone (she's been trapped on V.I.L.E. Island her whole life)
and answers it for her first contact in the outside world. It turns out to be a hacker named Player.
Player is shown on screen to be some 10 year old kid computer genius that was trying to hack the phone and other things world wide.
They chat and develop a friendship since Carmen herself is about 14 at this point.
Anyway, using the name Player is an inside joke to the classic PC game where you, the player, chase Carmen Sandiego around the world.
The only problem is that in the game, the Player was an ACME agent, a cop, detective, the hero.
Your job as the player is to give chase to Carmen's gang and eventually Carmen herself and arrest them for their crimes.
Yet in this show, suddenly the "Player" is a criminal and the first person in Carmen's gang. That just irks me a bit.

One of the biggest crimes this show has is its theme song. or lack of theme song.
It's maybe 20-30 seconds long, and is this kind of soft, slow samba jazz tune. Not at all exciting, but
the Latin-ish vibe at least fits Carmen herself given that the show puts her origin in Argentina
(she's always been a Latina, but the games never specified where, her past is always unknown).
Then, on top of that, its only lyrics are "Where in the world is Carmen... Sandiego." twice.
Now, I'm not complaining about the lack of Rockapella's version, or the version for the 1994 Carmen Sandiego cartoon,
since both don't fit the series and would have felt wrong/lazy to put here, but this song had NO effort put in it.
It's bland and this show needs more oomph.

Occasionally, typically when Player and Carmen are talking about their next travel spot or current caper objective,
they break out in this educational chatter about said place or objective.
This feels odd and out of place, as their tone starts to sound like a textbook narration more than natural conversation.
Now I can't really complain about this, as ALL Carmen Sandiego games were educational games to start with, but it
never feels natural and makes you feel like you momentarily started watching an education film in elementary school.
I get that you're trying to maintain the heart of the series by keeping the original games' focus, but it just doesn't work
well in a plot driven show that already struggles with the TeenNick vibe. Once again, its target audience is an Achilles heel.

Now I have ragged on this show for quite a long while of this review, but it does have its good points.
The main voice cast is all well done, or at least acceptable (some characters are a bit stereotypical), and delivers their lines well.
Well, except for the two characters in Carmen's gang, Zack and Ivy.
Zack and Ivy (also teenagers because of course they are) are two thieves that join Carmen before the show begins, but after
all these scenes that involve her flashback and escape from V.I.L.E.. They join her after meeting at one of her first anti-V.I.L.E. heists.
These two, brother and sister, have Boston accents, and they are GRATING to the ears.
I don't know enough to say if they just have bad fake Boston accents, or they are being well done, but it was a terrible decision either way.
A Boston accent isn't exactly great to listen to at the best of times, and these characters have a very thick, stereotypical one.
Everything has to be "wicked", and with them bickering half the time like siblings do, they are hard to listen to.
It's a shame, because as I said, most the cast does real well. I just curse the voice director that decided they had Boston accents.

The plot of the show also isn't as bad as I originally feared.
Sure, the very concept of a school for criminals that is also a shady organization is silly in of itself, but I don't hate it as much as I expected.
Somehow the writers actually make it work in this universe, and it's almost a less violent League of Shadows from the Batman lore.
They can still be violent, though, as the younger, flashback Carmen finds out when she sneaks out on her then friend's first mission.
This is what leads to Carmen leaving V.I.L.E. and instead causes her to dedicate herself to stopping them.
Still though, outside of any flashbacks, the school concept mostly goes by the wayside and more focuses on them being a villain organization.
I think that's what saves it for me. I was afraid they were going to spend too much of the show building up Carmen's school years.

The writing for this show is pretty decent, and even avoids (mostly near the last few episodes) being entirely predictable.
As I said, it carries a nice overarching plot, so the episodic plots don't feel random.
There is one oddball episode that feels a bit crackpotish involving a fish swallowing a coin everyone wants, but in general it works.
It has a nice layer between the normal citizens, the shadowing underworld of V.I.L.E., and the even more clandestine ACME Agency.
It even finishes off with a nice plot point that throws off your expectations they've built so far, and makes me want another season.

Begrudgingly, this is one show that proves to me you cannot judge a book by its cover... or more accurately its trailer.
It could use some improvements, and I still wish we had a mature Carmen Sandiego animated show that didn't have all teen main characters,
but for the most part I like the show. It doesn't happen very often my initial opinion of a show changes,
as most shows only get less quality as the seasons and years progress.

I actually like Carmen Sandiego, and I hate the fact that I do. This show does so many things wrong, but does them in the right way.
Netflix has some kind of magic, because I doubt someone like Nickelodeon or Cartoon Network would have done this series right.
I really wanted to hate you, Carmen Sandiego, but I just can't.
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