Greetings, Netflix viewer.
In light of Carmen Sandiego’s newest interactive mission, in which the viewer teams up with A.C.M.E.’s holographic Chief (Dawnn Lewis) to help Carmen save her friends from the evil clutches of V.I.L.E., we are making our own review interactive.
So, should you want to read a spoiler-free review of the project before sitting down to play it yourself, start below!
But if you have already finished watching (playing), and now want to dig into To Steal or Not To Steal’s nittiest, grittiest details, skip on ahead
Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal isn’t Netflix’s first foray into interactive storytelling. It is, however, the first to hit the service since Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch” dropped on December 28, 2018. Featuring a man named Stefan (Fionn Whitehead) trying to create a choose-your-own-adventure game in 1984, while himself being controlled by the viewer watching in the present day, that Charlie Brooker-led project garnered a lot of digital column inches both here at Paste and across pop culture media in general. As our own Jacob Oller put it, though, all that hype amounted to little more than a gimmick, every hyper-meta detail (such as it ever ended up becoming) existing only in service of the “stoned, debate-team take on free will” at the premise’s core. “The sadism of the TV audience is surely damnable,” Jacob concluded, “but making empty, vapid fiction interactive in order to own that audience is nothing but a self-congratulatory pat on the back for embracing a business model that would be considered dystopian in the universe of Black Mirror itself.”
So much for an optimistic take on the form!
It’s maybe not surprising, then, that Netflix ended up waiting so long to return to the interactive space—nor is it surprising that when they did, it wasn’t to throw a hype-bomb into any other of their high-profile prestige dramas, but rather to deepen the already eclectic family-friendly viewing experience of one of its more artistically daring animated family series. For one thing, kids these days live on screens, and while the adults in their lives know that there are plenty of downsides to that fact, it at least has the side-effect of giving them a chance to develop a more sophisticated relationship with the mechanics of storytelling than any generation to come before them. For another, Carmen Sandiego, which in its newest Netflix iteration takes the red-coated thief of Millennial viewers’ youths and transforms her into a kind of modern-day, glob-trotting Robin Hood, isn’t just any artistically daring animated family series—it’s one that boasts the exact kind of high-stakes, adrenaline-drenched narrative structure that all good CYOA stories need. (And which, as Jacob pointed out, “Bandersnatch” desperately lacked.)
What’s more, even for such a nostalgia-laden legacy property, Carmen Sandiego has a unique history of inviting fans (of all ages!) to interact with it directly, whether that be through shouting along to the Dawnn Lewis-hosted PBS panel show hosted in the early ‘90s, clicking around a desktop PC as an A.C.M.E. gumshoe hot on Carmen Sandiego’s trail in the late ‘90s, or keeping track of all the places Player (Finn Wolfhard) gives mini lectures on before Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) and her team jet off on each new mission in Netflix’s more narratively coherent reboot today. Honestly, Netflix could hardly have picked a better series to get back in the interactive game with than Carmen Sandiego.
As for how that interactive game is shaped, here’s the pitch: At the start of a new mission to steal back some mysterious V.I.L.E. loot secreted away in a vault at the top of one of Shanghai’s tallest skyscrapers, Carmen’s trusty ground crew, Bostonite siblings Zack (Michael Hawley) and Ivy (Abby Trott), are taken by Carmen’s former V.I.L.E. Academy instructors as leverage to make Carmen do their evil bidding. Zack and Ivy will remain unharmed, the V.I.L.E. instructors promise, so long as Carmen agrees to steal something for each of them, no matter how far-flung or impractical the target. Should she refuse—or (especially) should she try to rescue her team instead of going after the booty V.I.L.E. wants—then Zack and Ivy will be subjected to Dr. Bellum’s (Sharon Muthu) dreaded mind wipe machine and turned into brainless V.I.L.E. henchmen. As a viewer, A.C.M.E.’s holographic Chief (Lewis) deputizes you as the secret service’s newest gumshoe, on board to help Carmen get through the mission successfully.
Immediately, this sets up stakes that make sense: Over the course of the main series’ first two seasons, the chosen-family bond between Carmen and her team has been proven time and time again—saving Zack and Ivy is imperative, both to Carmen as a character, and to fans playing along at home. Furthermore, as an elite, globetrotting thief of some renown, Carmen’s entire life is made up of critical split-second decisions that dictate the success (or failure) of high-stakes missions, while also staying true to her internal “do no evil” moral code. Putting the viewer in Carmen’s shoes, not only asking them to follow that same code to make those decisions for her, but to do so in the face of a ticking clock, is both consistent with the show’s central premise, and intuitively compelling as a CYOA mechanic.
And while Carmen’s failures in “the real world” can’t be undone (the last stretch of Season 2 being a prime example), the fact that the viewer’s mission failures in To Steal or Not to Steal get wiped away by Chief waving a holographic deus ex machina hand is just as consistent. It turns what initially seems like one of Carmen’s real missions into a kind of VR training module for the A.C.M.E. gumshoe the viewer is meant to be—AKA, what all those Carmen Sandiego desktop video and board games had players doing all the way back in the dark ages of the last millennium. Which, speaking of, the wildly fun bonus scene that’s unlocked after each successful run-through calls back to even harder.
All this is to say, if “Bandersnatch” was ultimately a hollow exercise in proving the basic hypothesis that if you build it (interactive streaming technology), they (voracious, digitally isolated audiences) will come, then Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal is the plucky wunderkind who takes that hypothesis’ potential and turns it into something real. Something deep? No, not really. But something fun, for sure. And at a time when there’s so much good TV that it can easily feel like work just to think about catching up on a sliver of it, fun is all it needs to be.
Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal is currently available to stream now on Netflix. (As are the first two seasons of Carmen Sandiego, itself.)
Spoilers Below …
In its normal format, Netflix’s updated take on Carmen Sandiego gives a youngish twentysomething Carmen (Gina Rodriguez) the kind of internally driven emotional arc the crimson-hatted lady thief of yore never had—one that will feel familiar to modern audiences used to seeing animated characters (even on shows rated TV-Y7) work through deep emotional shit, but one that would have been nearly incomprehensible to the target audience when Carmen Sandiego, as a character, was first introduced. An orphan raised by the criminal masterminds at the head of both the V.I.L.E. organization (charged with stealing the world’s greatest treasures) and the V.I.L.E. Academy (charged with training the next generation of sociopathic baby criminals), Carmen eventually stumbles on a connection to the outside world via the reclusive savant hacker known only as Player (Finn Wolfhard), whose positive influence inspires her to break free of V.I.L.E. and their evil ways, committing her hard-earned thieving skills instead to the cause of thwarting them at every turn.
Over the course of the first two seasons, this more personal narrative has been fairly well integrated with all the glitzy, jet-setting missions that put Carmen up against various code-named criminals of V.I.L.E.’s employ that are so core to the Carmen Sandiego brand. Each episode, individually, has its own satisfying narrative—not to mention its own sense of style, thanks to Carmen’s global purview and Chromosphere’s texturally rich animation—but also just enough long-game details that viewers interested in learning more about the mystery of Carmen’s past will come away satisfied. The second season, especially, is full of the kinds of foundation-shifting twists and reveals that would be just as at home in older-skewing series like On My Block or Marvel’s Runaways. (Hint: A supposed good guy is revealed in the Season 2 finale to have straight-up murdered an unarmed person, not to mention the V.I.L.E. instructor closest to being a maternal figure to Carmen nearly breaking her back in half as retribution for betraying the V.I.L.E. family.)
This sets Carmen Sandiego: To Steal or Not to Steal up as a particularly interesting experiment not just in terms of what it accomplishes as Netflix’s big return to the interactive format, but also in terms of how it both feeds off of and informs the regular run of Carmen Sandiego elsewhere in your Up Next queue.
The series’ interactive game immediately sets up stakes that make sense. As noted above (for those of you who jumped straight here): Over the course of the main series’ first two seasons, the chosen-family bond between Carmen and her team has been proven time and time again—saving Zack and Ivy is imperative, both to Carmen as a character, and to fans playing along at home. Furthermore, as an elite, globetrotting thief of some renown, Carmen’s entire life is made up of critical split-second decisions that dictate the success (or failure) of high-stakes missions, while also staying true to her internal “do no evil” moral code. Putting the viewer in Carmen’s shoes, not only asking them to follow that same code to make those decisions for her, but to do so in the face of a ticking clock, is both consistent with the show’s central premise, and intuitively compelling as a CYOA mechanic.
And while Carmen’s failures in “the real world” can’t be undone (the last stretch of Season 2 being a prime example), the fact that the viewer’s mission failures in To Steal or Not to Steal get wiped away by Chief waving a holographic deus ex machina hand is just as consistent, turning what initially seems like one of Carmen’s real missions into a kind of VR training module for the A.C.M.E. gumshoe the viewer is meant to be—AKA, what all those Carmen Sandiego desktop video and board games had players doing all the way back in the dark ages of the last millennium. (There is, of course, a certain irony to the fact that Dawnn Lewis’ Chief plays such a positive role in To Steal or Not to Steal, given all that goes down in the Season 2 finale, but as a project that is aiming to capture the attention of fans both established and new, this ambivalence makes perfect sense.)
As for the choices, themselves, series creator Duane Caprizi and his team have managed to come up not just with the right balance, number-wise, but also the right balance in terms of each decision matrix’s ultimate narrative impact. Some choices (like the first one to reach the vault in Shanghai by scaling the outside of the skyscraper or going up through the building itself, or a later one to reach a dinosaur museum in Montana by trying to catch the tail of a plane that might get you there fast, or just hopping on a motorcycle and resigning yourself to being a bit slower), result in the exact same thing. Others, like trying to avoid Tigress (Kari Wahlgren) or suck it up and talk to her, also come to the same conclusion, just with an extra obstacle for Carmen to contend with along the way if you pick one over the other. Still others, of course, result in immediate failure—if you haven’t figured it out by now: Always pick clever over brave—while others result in decisive victory. More interesting than the sheer variety of impact, perhaps, is the fact that several choices, ones that directly involved other helping or ignoring other characters, trigger a note at the top of the screen promising that those same characters will remember the choice you made. Naturally, on some paths, those memories help you, while on others, they sink you like a stone.
Importantly, while the viewer as an A.C.M.E. gumshoe-in-training is the one at the wheel, To Steal or Not to Steal never lets Carmen act truly out of character. When she fails, and Zack and Ivy have their minds wiped, it’s not because she didn’t try her hardest—it’s just because sometimes the world doesn’t conform to the choices we make, good intentions or not. And critically, at the moment Carmen is presented with a choice that could put the viewer at risk of going down a scarily dark path—that is, when Mime Bomb starts really choking on a real hors d’oeuvre at a party both he and Carmen are at in Monaco—no decision matrix appears. “This time, there’s only one choice,” Carmen tells Player before shooting over to administer the Heimlich, even as he worries that any pause in the plan will cause her to miss her caviar-stealing window. And with that, Carmen’s—and by extension, the viewer’s—moral compass is left intact.
The most fun thing about To Steal or Not to Steal, of course, is the bonus scene at the end, which finds Zack and Ivy kicking off a long, long-awaited Carmen Sandiego rendition of Rockapella’s classic “Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?” theme song to PBS’s early-nineties game show. Pulling in V.I.L.E and A.C.M.E. operatives alike from across both Netflix seasons, it brings the Netflix reboot full circle with the property’s retro roots in a way that is neat, in all senses of the word. And given that the tone and direction of Carmen Sandiego, as a whole, tends more towards moodiness, this is likely the only place this version of the song will be incorporated, making it not just a long-awaited treat, but a rare one.
As Variety reported last year, To Steal or Not to Steal is meant to mark a whole new wave of interactive Netflix projects—many of which, thankfully, will also come from the streamer’s family animation slate. Time will tell, of course, but if Netflix’s next interactive projects go anything like this one, then we’re in for some fun times.
In the meantime, keep an eye out for Carmen Sandiego, Season 3.
Alexis Gunderson is a TV critic and audiobibliophile. She can be found @AlexisKG.
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