Monday, March 23, 2009
I spent 5 good years of my life wondering in fact where in the world was Carmen Sandiego. She certainly was a tricky one. To think that there existed a jewel thief manager who could outwit three red-vested 10-to-14-year-old contestants with limited geographic knowledge is absolutely staggering. Even though Carmen and her cohorts were non-threateningly cartoon-animated, we knew of her malevolent misdoings and were eager to locate her and her dim-witted agents. Plus, the victor won an all-expenses paid trip to anywhere in the 48 contiguous United States. I mean, imagine! A chance to fly Delta Airlines coach and stay in a Holiday Inn down in downtown Boise or inner Salt Lake City? Sign me up!
If you grew up in the 1990s and had a head, the Carmen Sandiego game show theme song was likely stuck in it and playing on repeat. Performed by Rockapella, the leading Folger's coffee commercial-starring a capella quartet of the era, the song was possibly the most captivating and recognizable game-show theme of the decade. Just hearing the opening, "do it, Rockapella!" is enough to mobilize me to doo-wop uncontrollably. In case you've ever managed to expunge this catchy chorus from your brain, here is a handy sing-along video of the song:
The show itself was developed as a response to the alarmingly low level of geographic knowledge amongst America's television-polluted youth. They were already watching TV, so why not throw in some desperately-needed geography lessons? Oldest trick in the PBS play book, presented by Viewers Like You. After all, we couldn't have the Soviets out-knowledging us in the field of maps and atlases--especially considering that when the show first aired, a disturbing number of American-educated children could not even locate the as-of-yet-undefunct Soviet Union on a map.
Once they'd hooked you with the rockin' theme song, they capitalized on your love for Rockapella by featuring them as the "house vocal band and comedy troupe". Really, that's how they were billed. Admittedly, this is probably the highest level to which a moderately humorous a capella group could aspire, but its music scene street credibility is definitely questionable. Rockapella's zany madcap skits paired with Carmen and the gang's animated hijinks were enough to make all of us yearn to be game show gumshoes.
Most episodes began a little something like this, minus the special celebrity teammates:
All hail the late great Lynn Thigpen, chief of the ACME detective agency and our hearts. Along with co-host Greg Lee ("The ACME Special Agent in charge of training new recruits,") they somehow made these off-the-wall tasks and missions seem appreciably plausible. Why shouldn't we believe that all great detectives are given detailed briefings chock-full of historically and geographically relevant educational information with little to no information on the case or suspects themselves? Who were we to question the notion that gumshoes typically solve their crimes in three well-defined rounds culminating in a light-speed map identification quest? We could only assume that all failed detectives usually walk away from their task at hand dejected but sporting a t-shirt with the head crook's name and face plastered across the front. You know, in case they run into them somewhere and need the pictorial evidence to make a legitimate citizen's arrest.
Makes sense to me.
Of course we all knew the premise was thin and the musical comedy sketches unnecessary, but we loved this show with undying fervor nonetheless. At the time, the prizes seemed outstandingly desirable, but in retrospect it becomes pretty clear we were working with a public broadcasting budget. Sure, the winner got to keep their Crime Bucks (conveniently converted to legal tender cash!) but the other consolatory prizes seemed a little "let's clean out the ol' PBS donation closet." Though the nature and value of the consolation prizes remained relatively stagnant, the show did a spectacular job of repackaging the prize pack with a new name each season. Originally the ACME Crimenet Travel Kit, it also went by the aliases of the Travel Pack and ACME Gumshoe Gear. Clearly, it was not only our jewel thieves who were duplicitous.
No matter what you called it, if you failed to win the coveted round-trip ticket to a Holiday Inn anywhere in the lower 48 states you were still going home with...well, something. Just think, you too could win a Rand McNally World Atlas, Official Carmen Sandiego t-shirt, watch, sweatshirt, backpack, a one year full-paid subscription to National Geographic, a BASKETBALL GLOBE (!), ACME crime net cap, ACME stealth pen recorder, and even maybe the ACME Voice Identification Badge and Leave-a-Message Wallet! That's a lot of loot right there. To think we thought the jewel-heisters were thieves!
Carmen Sandiego was a phenomenon in a way that few children's shows are today. We all knew that it was educational; the secret was out. Yet somehow, we got so caught up in the catchy Rockapella-ness of it all and were willing to accept this opportunity to actively learn something about world geography. Exceptionally timely in an era of ever-changing geo-political boundaries, we could always count on Carmen Sandiego to go to somewhere particularly relevant to present conflict and shifts.
At the end of the day, whether or not our postcard records of that episode's loots and locations were chosen for the at-home viewer T-shirt winner, at least the show had given us the attention span necessary to follow Carmen from Chicago to Czechoslovakia and back*.
(*All geographical data is current as of the date this program was recorded)