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Bad News, Gumshoes: Carmen Sandiego Is No Longer a Villain

Netflix’s cartoon reboot of the world-traveling franchise reimagines yesteryear’s super-thief as a museum-loving Robin Hood

Netflix/Ringer illustration

Gumshoes, I have some bad news: Carmen Sandiego appears to have come aboard the SS Good Guys.

Or at least that’s what Netflix would have you believe in its animated reboot of the world-traveling franchise, which the streaming service released in full last week.

The new Carmen Sandiego series delves into the crimson enigma’s backstory. We learn that an infant Carmen (voiced by Jane the Virgin’s Gina Rodriguez) was found by a road outside Buenos Aires by a team of professional globe-trotting bandits, who operate under the very subtle—and familiar, if you know your Sandiego lore—aegis “V.I.L.E.” (That’s Villains’ International League of Evil, in case you were still uncertain of where your allegiances ought to lie.)

But—and some light spoilers here, so beware—unlike the original Sandiego, this Carmen does not lead V.I.L.E. in its various attempts to steal and sell priceless antiquities. Rather, after a childhood spent learning all the master-thievery techniques a master thief could ever need, she breaks with the organization. On her first expedition into the real world, as she and her V.I.L.E. cohort attempt to rob an archaeological dig site of some just-unearthed treasure, a teenage Carmen encounters an old man who teaches her the value of … museums.

That’s right: Netflix’s Carmen Sandiego is gravely concerned with nations’ cultural patrimony. She has capers aplenty, but she tends to rob only V.I.L.E., leaving the glittering goods where law enforcement might find them. (To put on display for the benefit of the public, duh.) As an archaeologist advises her along the way, there are some things that do “not have high monetary value” yet do have “tremendous cultural value.” And how!

Did I mention nouveau Carmen is cool and maybe even—clutch your Mediterranean black pearls close—relatable? She swaps her knee-high boots for sneakers and a choker. She takes selfies.

As for the key question—Where in the world?—there are, yes, passport stamps and country facts aplenty: You will learn about Wayang shadow puppetry in Indonesia, Dutchman Johannes Vermeer’s ability to showcase natural light, and the importance of bananas and tuna in the Ecuadorian economy. And some old friends emerge: Behold Chief, who helps welcome some gumshoes (obviously) into the crime-fighting ACME fold. Rita Moreno, who voiced Carmen Sandiego in the original ’90s cartoon (which was itself based on the Broderbund video game franchise), reappears as Cookie, one of V.I.L.E.’s leaders. Finn Wolfhard—a.k.a. Mike Wheeler from Stranger Things—comes in as Player, a stand-in for the country-locating audience competitors of the PBS game show of yore, here a Google-equipped assistant to Carmen’s various acts of derring-do.

But don’t let any of this distract you from the fact that Netflix is radically altering the text: Carmen Sandiego, the villain who launched a thousand geography bees, is suddenly supposed to be a hero. Nothing is sacred—except maybe the halls of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum. Or so the show would have you believe.

Still, the Netflix series appears to be at least slightly self-aware: “White-collar crime is where the real money is,” one thief advises another. You could do worse, at least if you’re looking for the sort of program where a character might be dubbed both “Lambkins” and “Fedora the Explorer.” We can all be thankful, perhaps, that Carmen Sandiego was spared the Riverdale treatment: There is nothing gritty or sexy here, and thank goodness.

In the end, the real tragedy might be that Rockapella is nowhere to be found:

A sticky-fingered filcher no more.