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Netflix's Season 3 of 'Carmen Sandiego' Goes Interactive
March 10, 2020  | By Monique Nazareth  | 17 comments

Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? She's back on Netflix with a new interactive adventure. Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not To Steal, premieres on March 10. Unlike the first two seasons of the Netflix series, the viewer decides which way the storyline goes this time around. Perhaps it's a nod to Carmen Sandiego's beginnings in the game realm.

It's been 35 years since we were first introduced to the lady in red. Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? was a computer game released by Broderbund Software in 1985. Broderbund was the company responsible for games like Choplifter and the Prince of Persia, among others. A programmer named Dane Bingham was working on a graphics-based adventure game for kids. His boss and company cofounder, Gary Carlston, suggested pairing reference books with it, including the World Almanac. From there, the design team took over. Gene Portwood, an ex-Disney animator who had worked on Snow White, developed her style. Lauren Elliott, who was part of that design team, says Portwood "was one of the first to advocate for character sheets - with that, it was much easier to imagine how she'd behave...and gave it, ultimately, 'legs.'"

Elliott says Portwood was "was in love with over-the-top characters." And with her red fedora and trench coat to match her red hair, Carmen really is that. The original idea was to make her just one of the criminals,  but she stood out so much that the Broderbund team decided to make her the leader of the Villain's International League of Evil (V.I.L.E.). Players would follow clues to track Carmen and her crew to different destinations. To win the game, you had to catch Carmen herself. 

Although Elliott says they knew they had "a perfect villain - bright, easy to personify, and surrounded by fumbling bad guys," they didn't know how popular the game would be. "I, and any other honest creator of original content, would be lying if they said that they knew any title was going to be successful," says Elliott. "What we did know was that we'd make the best game we could, give it redeeming value, work on it until we thought it was done, and appeal to as large an audience as possible - adding a bit of humor along the way."

Once they had what they thought was the right game, it was time to market it. Elliott attributes Carmen Sandiego's marketing success to Gary Carlston's sister, Cathy. "She came up with the idea of getting it into the schools and giving incentives for the kids to buy versions for home."

By 1986, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? had grown in popularity, and Broderbund decided to release many follow-up versions, including Where in the U.S.A. is Carmen Sandiego?  Where in Europe is Carmen Sandiego? and Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? among others.

Then PBS came calling. Producer Howard Blumenthal was already familiar with Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego and friendly with the team at Broderbund. He says they even informally talked about doing a TV version of the game, but nothing came of it until three years later. "WQED called to ask if I was interested in this project," Blumenthal explained, "and they didn't know I knew anything about it. I knew the game as I was writing a lot about personal computers…so the people at Broderbund were very comfortable with my producing it."

Blumenthal says PBS ordered a pilot episode, but he threw it out with the exception of the logo, which he kept and then redesigned. 

The half-hour children's game show Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? premiered in September 1991 and ran for five seasons. The show was hosted by Greg Lee and starred character actress Lynn Thigpen. It also included a house band, a cappella group, Rockapella, for added humor. "We used one character from the original computer game, and then we created the other seven on our own," says Blumenthal. "We thought of the idea that Carmen had a gang, so we really wouldn't see her except the logo. We talked about her as a mysterious boss who was bad, but that was really it…That was one of the offbeat ideas we had. We based the whole show around a character that was unimportant."

In a sharp contrast, Carmen was very important to the Saturday morning Fox animated series that was on TV around that same time. Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? ran from 1994 to 1999. But while Broderbund had a hands-off approach with the PBS show, they reportedly kept script approval rights for every episode at Fox. The great Rita Moreno voiced Carmen, who was an international thief and the head of V.I.L.E. ACME agents, teenage siblings Ivy and Zack, among others, pursued her. While Carmen was a criminal in the series, she, at times, helped the agents against mutual enemies. In keeping with the game feel, the series included a character identified as the Player, who was a live-action actor sitting in front of a computer. You only saw him from the back, and he appeared at the beginning and end of each show. 

In 1998, the Learning Company bought Broderbund. And not too long after, Carmen was no longer on TV though she still appeared in games. It took 20 years for Carmen Sandiego to reappear on television. 

Netflix began its series, Carmen Sandiego, at the beginning of 2019. Executive Producer Caroline Fraser told Variety why the time was right for the red-haired super thief to have her own series again: "We felt like kids really would benefit from a reigniting of learning about and celebrating cultures around the world," Fraser said, "and we also felt like, from an entertainment perspective, there were not many action-adventure heroes that featured female hero leads, particularly a Latina heroine."

Gina Rodriguez, of Jane the Virgin fame, was chosen to voice the new Carmen Sandiego. And the reboot changed many of the character personalities even as they kept the names. We also learn about Carmen's backstory: that she was deserted as a baby and raised in V.I.L.E.'s school for thieves, which is how she acquired her skill set.

The first season began with a two-part episode titled Becoming Carmen Sandiego.  It starts with two Interpol agents tracking the international thief. They talk about her distinct style of a scarlet coat and fedora and observe how she makes random public appearances before each of her crimes. One agent notes: "So we must ask ourselves, who in the world is Carmen Sandiego? Why would a thief draw attention to herself by leaving clues and wearing bold colors?"   The other agent responds, "Perhaps stealing's a game to her."

As in all Carmen Sandiego games, she has a Player. This time it's a teenager with a bunch of computers who helps guide Carmen and speaks to her through earbuds. We learn that the two connected when he hacked into V.I.L.E. We never learn his name or where he's based, as he's only called Player.

In a nod to the Fox series, Rita Moreno lends her voice to V.I.L.E. accountant, Cookie Booker. Booker offers young Carmen advice noting that she's matured a lot: "Young lady, you seem like a smart cookie. If you wish to walk in my shoes someday, set your sights higher than pulling pranks or picking pockets. White-collar crime is where the real money is."   

It's as if Moreno is passing the crimson fedora to Rodriguez, which Cookie literally does, though unintentionally. Carmen also manages to steal the files she needs for her new mission to destroy V.I.L.E.  And with that, Carmen becomes a kind of Robin Hood in red. The reboot also includes siblings Ivy and Zack, the teenage agents from Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego; however, in this version, they are part of Carmen's crew. 

The first two seasons of Carmen Sandiego were full of international adventures, unexpected twists, and cliffhangers. And somehow it still managed to educate the viewers, even if they were too entertained to notice. Every new destination included information about geography, customs, famous natural and national monuments, population, and other notables. So what in the world can we expect from the new interactive Carmen? 

Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal could actually be titled Where in the World are Ivy and Zack. The premise is that V.I.L.E. has kidnapped the two, and unless Carmen works for them, they are threatening to brainwash them. Carmen decides to do what her former criminal instructors demand while she tries to figure out how to rescue the siblings with help from the Player and the viewer. 

So what do Carmen's creators think about this new version of her? "I think any interactivity is great - and Netflix is doing a great job of taking it mainstream," said Elliott. "Hopefully, the platform will evolve to include more original content, wider and different ways of interacting, and more unique, perhaps AI-driven storylines...and just a little, perhaps, of the content that gave it value."

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