Nostalgia Time: Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?


By: Chris Chan (@GKCfan)

Few figures have made as deep an impact on the edutainment industry as Carmen Sandiego. Starting as a computer game series, a franchise quickly blossomed as a way to teach geography, history, math, vocabulary, and even music through a series of books, board and card games, CDs, television shows, and public presentations.

In nearly all of the iterations, the player took on the role of a detective for the ACME Detective Agency, trying to track down priceless public treasures and antiquities that had been stolen by Carmen Sandiego and a motley crew of thieves. Players would track the culprit around the world (or possibly just the United States or Europe), or through time and even space, finding clues pointing to their next destination, as well as the identity of the villain. With a little luck, the young person would have so much fun playing that they would have no idea just how much they were learning.

This was a brilliant way to teach geography and history. Little historical tidbits and factoids were easily memorized, interest and respect for other cultures were cultivated, and logical skills were developed as well.

Though most of the games and books were useful means of educating and amusing, in my estimation, the crown jewel of the franchise was the game show, which ran for five seasons from 1991 to 1996 on PBS. Each episode consisted of three young players who were tasked with tracking down a villain who had stolen a treasure of great cultural value. In the first round, the players would be asked a series of questions through various entertaining clues. The two players with the highest point totals would move on to the second round, which was a memory game which required players to find the stolen loot, a warrant, and the crook (in that order) behind a series of rotating panels. The winner of the second round would move to the final round, which was set on a gigantic map of one of five continents, and the player would have to identify several countries (usually seven in the first season, eight in later seasons), within a set period of time (usually forty-five seconds, though occasionally in the first season, a full minute was allowed). Racing around the map and identifying all of the locations within the time limit meant that Carmen Sandiego had been captured and that the player won a trip to the location he or she chose (anywhere in the lower forty-eight states in the first season, anywhere in North America in the later seasons). Failure to complete the task meant that Carmen escaped (considering that even a captured Carmen was always free by the next episode, it seems that the jails on the program were not very secure).

In lesser hands, the show would have been dry and didactic, but the cast and writing team were impeccable. Greg Lee made for a gloriously genial and goofy host, and he was perfectly paired with the magnificent Lynne Thigpen as the stern but kindly Chief. As every nineties kid who watched the show would tell you, the series was truly elevated by the music. The singing group Rockapella presaged the acapella trend, and the combination of song parodies packed with informative clues and the magnificent theme song made the series a true classic.

The show was never afraid to mix silliness with an education, and the clues were delivered by rapping grandmothers, stool pigeons, dying informants, celebrity guests, secret spies, and nosy neighbors, just to name a few. One would need to have both a heart of stone and a brain of pudding not to be charmed and informed by the series. An old adage says, “That which is learned with pleasure is never forgotten,” and from personal experience, I know that I aced my geography classes thanks to all things Carmen Sandiego.

With no official announcement explaining why, the game show ended after its fifth season in 1995, and vanished from most PBS schedules permanently by the spring of 1996. In the fall of 1996, the spinoff game show Where in Time is Carmen Sandiego? started and ran for two seasons. There were many points of similarity with the previous game show, and though it was a good program, for me, it lacked the spark and magic of World. Part of this was due to the fact that Greg Lee and Rockapella were absent, though Thigpen’s continuation of her role as The Chief was Time’s greatest asset. Kevin Shinick was a decent host, though The Engine Crew’s music paled in comparison to Rockapella’s. The questions based on historical facts were also less elegant than the ones based on geography.

Much like Square One TV, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? has been left unavailable to future generations. Unlike Square One, though, the content of Carmen Sandiego has gotten a little out of date. Though mathematical principles remain the same a quarter-century later, several of the geographic facts are no longer accurate. The first season was particularly outmoded due to the dissolution of the Soviet Union, and the European map changed a lot over the years with the breakups of Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia. Still, the vast majority of the clues on the show would still be correct if the series were to ever get a streaming or DVD release, which is something the current generation of young people deserves, though perhaps some episodes may need some brief pop-up comments explaining what is no longer true. There’s a reason why Thigpen made an announcement at the end of later episodes explaining that “All information was correct on the date this episode was recorded.”

By the turn of the century, most of the computer games had ceased to be updated for contemporary operating systems, and the board games and books went out of print. Here and there, a new game popped up, though some of them severely deviated from the traditional, highly informative format. Aside from a re-release of the animated series on DVD, it seemed like the franchise might be dying.

Happily, it seems that you can’t keep a good thief down. Recently, Netflix announced a new Carmen Sandiego animated series set for release in 2019, with a special focus on Carmen’s character and backstory. If the rebooted show meets with success, who knows what other new additions to the once-dormant franchise might flourish in the future.

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