Gee, PBS was on a roll with their kids shows in the 1990s, Barney & Friends, Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, Sesame Street, Arthur, Teletubbies, Thomas The Tank Engine, The Magic School Bus, growing up in the 90s, these were just as much of a common weekday practice to watch these along with Fox Kids, Disney Afternoon, Kids WB!, USA Cartoon Express, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon and others.
But of course, probably the most memorable and the most iconic character to come out of PBS in the 1990s was Carmen Sandiego:
Carmen Sandiego (sometimes referred to as Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?) is a media franchise that originated in 1985 with a series of educational video games developed by American gaming company Broderbund. The franchise centers around the fictional titular villain and international master thief of the same name, who is the ringleader of the criminal organisation, V.I.L.E.; the protagonists (most often including a computer player) are agents of the ACME Detective Agency who try to thwart the crooks’ plans to steal treasures from around the world, with the ultimate goal is to capture Carmen Sandiego herself.
The franchise primarily focuses on teaching children geography, but has also branched out into history, mathematics, language arts, and other subjects. An attempt was made to create a series of state-specific games in the late 1980s, but the only prototype to be completed was North Dakota. Beginning in 1988, Carmen Sandiego Days became popular across American schools. In the 90’s, the franchise extended to gameshows, an animated TV series, planetarium shows, concert series, music albums, books and comics, and board games. Towards the turn of the 21st century, the Carmen Sandiego property passed through a series of five corporate hands: Broderbund (1998), The Learning Company (1999), Mattel (2000), The Gores Group (2001), and Riverdeep (2002). Subsequent acquisitions and mergers of Riverdeep led to the franchise currently being in the posession of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
One aspect of the series that has received consistent praise by critics is its depiction of strong, independent, and intelligent woman of minority. Carmen Sandiego herself is Latino, and it has never been implied that her ethnicity is correlated to her thievery. Meanwhile, The Chief (originated by Lynne Thigpen) is American-American, a bold choice for children’s television when she first debuted in 1991. These two characters have helped to bring such representations into the mainstream and legitimise leadership roles for young women.
Carmen Sandiego has maintained a considerable popularity and commercial success over its history. Carmen Sandiego is one of the top 30 longest-running video game series, having existed for just over 30 years with the release of Carmen Sandiego Returns in 2015. By 1997, Carmen Sandiego games had been translated into three languages, and over 5 million copies had been sold into schools and homes worldwide. The three TV series have together been nominated for a grand total of 45 Daytime Emmy Awards (winning 8), while World also won Peabody Award. They had a combined viewing audience of over 10 million viewers each week. The franchise will continue on television with the release of a Netflix series, due to air in 2019.
For many of us growing up in the 90s, our first encounters with Carmen Sandiego was with the game show, Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego? and that friggin’ theme song by Rockapella:
Oh sweet mother of god, if you did not start singing this song at any point, then you have no nostalgia factor to you.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? is an American half-hour children’s television game show based on the Carmen Sandiego computer game series created by Brøderbund Software. The program aired on PBS from September 30, 1991 to December 22, 1995, with reruns airing until October 4, 1996. Greg Lee hosted the program in the role of an “ACME Special Agent [renamed “Senior Agent” for Seasons 3–5] in charge of training new recruits”. He was joined by Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief” and a cappella performing group Rockapella, who served as the show’s in-house band and comedy troupe. The series was recorded in New York City and coproduced by PBS stations WQED and WGBH. Howard Blumenthal, Dana Calderwood, and Dorothy Curley were the series’ developers and Blumenthal served as the show’s producer for its first four seasons. Supervising Producers were Jonathan Meath (seasons 2-5) and Ariel Schwartz (season 1).
The show was created partially in response to the results of a National Geographic survey that indicated Americans had alarmingly little knowledge of geography, with one in four being unable to locate the Soviet Union or the Pacific Ocean.
Each episode consists of three contestants (typically 10–14 years of age) answering questions to determine the location of one of Carmen Sandiego’s henchmen. The contestants are referred to as “gumshoes” throughout the program in reference to private detectives that are just starting out in the field. The program received the George Foster Peabody Award in 1993. The program’s theme song, written by Sean Altman and David Yazbek, has maintained public awareness over the years. In 2001, TV Guide ranked the show at #47 on its list of 50 Greatest Game Shows of All Time.
What was great about the Carmen Sandiego game show was that it was an educational game show that was actually fun to watch, you didn’t feel like you were being forced into something you didn’t want to do, this show actually made you want to learn stuff because they made it fun to learn things much like how Schoolhouse Rock did it in the 70s. You also had a good host who can appeal to the kids, the late Lynne Thigpen as The Chief and of course, Rockapella allowing great music and solid side appeal to the series to make it more fun.
I mean, it’s one thing to have one TV show to solidify your status in the decade of the 90s but how about two memorable TV shows in the same decade?
Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego? is an American animated television series based on the series of computer games. The show was produced by DIC Entertainment/Program Exchange and originally aired Saturday mornings on FOX during the Fox Kids block. Its episodes have subsequently been repeated on the Fox Family, PAX and the short-lived girlzChannel. Reruns of the series currently air on The Worship Network and Qubo. The series won a Daytime Emmy Award for Outstanding Children’s Animated Program in 1995 and in the same year was spun off into a Where in the World-styled video game entitled Carmen Sandiego Junior Detective.
Like the basic plot of the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? line of video games, Carmen Sandiego (voiced by Rita Moreno) and her organization V.I.L.E. have stolen items and it is up to the ACME agents Zack (Scott Menville) and Ivy (Jennifer Hale) (under the guidance of the Chief (Rodger Bumpass, better known as Squidward from SpongeBob Squarepants)) to put a stop to her.
I mean it also says something about a property when it can have two memorable theme songs to it that are very different from each other and also for it to have two different series that are equally as memorable.
This cartoon took everything we loved about the game show, created an enticing story around it with these likeable characters, threw in some pretty solid animation, and a great voice cast and blended it all together into this one show. There was even this cool concept where they had a live-action player on a computer playing the events of the episode so there was a resemblance of the PC games the franchise was based on. It’s like they nailed everything that made this franchise work as a whole and made it memorable, sort of like what they did with Sonic SatAM….and yet, they could not do the same for neither Super Mario Bros. nor Legend Of Zelda….figures.
There was one more Carmen Sandiego series that ran as a continuation of Where In The World? entitled Where In Time Is Carmen Sandiego?
Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego? Is an American half-hour children’s television game show loosely based on the computer game of the same name created by Brøderbund Software. Just like its predecessor, the show was produced by WGBH and WQED. The program lasted two seasons on PBS, consisting of 115 episodes, which ran from October 7, 1996 to December 12, 1997, with reruns airing until October 2, 1998. The show starred Lynne Thigpen as “The Chief”, Kevin Shinick as “ACME Time Pilot Squadron Leader” and “The Engine Crew” as various informants. The show replaced Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?, and was recorded entirely at Kaufman Astoria Studios in Queens, New York City.
Much like the original series, three players (ages 10–14) known as “Time Pilots” compete, each given 100 ‘Power Points’ to begin. The Chief identifies the stolen object and its source, and various skits give clues to the location. After the skit, three possible answers or locations are shown to the pilots. The viewer can see the individual choices represented by an individual color (pink, green, or blue). Any pilot with the correct answer scores 10 Power Points; any incorrect answer leaves the score unchanged.
And to be perfectly honest, it just never had that quality that the other two Carmen Sandiego shows had, it really felt like they were trying to remain relevant while trying to be something different. Still, it’s a fun game show, it has a lot of those elements that made the original game show fun to watch but there just wasn’t that memorability factor that Where In The World? was. Not quite as good but not bad of a series.
And then by 1999, Carmen Sandiego kind of petered out for a while. You still got video games every once in a while but just this week, Netflix officially confirmed that they are working on a new Carmen Sandiego series with Gina Rodriguez of Jane The Virgin fame as the title character and Finn Wolfhard of Stranger Things fame as the player and you know what, with Netflix’s great track record for original series, this could be the most perfect way to bring this character back to the spotlight. Rodriguez is a great rising actress whose always fun to watch on Jane The Virgin and has gone on to get bigger film roles with Deepwater Horizon recently and Wolfhard is a good kid actor from Stranger Things and I’m hoping this ends up being good.
Nowadays, there are more kids TV shows that don’t really blend education and fun as much there was back then. I mean, most of PBS’ shows don’t quite have that fun factor to them anymore, I mean for god’s sake, who would’ve thought Arthur would still be running new episodes over 20 years after its’ debut? Carmen Sandiego was one of those classic nostalgic TV shows that has the potential to be brought back today and it actually, if done right, could be a good return to form for kids shows. But for now, we still have the classic shows from the 90s to keep us waiting.
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