Show of the Day: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?

18 Nov

When I was young, though not so much anymore, geography was my bag.  I styled myself an expert, winning my elementary school geography bee in 5th grade, and I was captivated by both the Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego series of games, which I dominated (well, the Where in the USA version – the Europe version was still kind of a nightmare) as well as by the game show, which aired on PBS, a network I watched my fair share of a kid without cable.

The show was hosted by Greg Lee, whose main claim to fame aside for this job was voicing the principal on Doug.  The contestants were kids from 10-14, old enough to be familiar with geography but young enough for some answers not to be obvious (though who am I kidding, myself, and I’m sure many others, had their peak of geographic knowledge around those years).  At the beginning of an episode, the other primary recurring character, The Chief, would announce which one of Carmen’s gang did the stealing and what landmark they stole.  Carmen generally was hands off herself – she had removed herself from day-to-day theft operations and was simply masterminding, perhaps in an attempt to make it more difficult to tie her to the crime (though the RICO statute probably made it more difficult).  Unfortunately her talents for crime were not matched by her talents of picking out quality associates, with incompetents like Patty Larceny, Vic the Slick and twin team Double Trouble working for her.  There were also more out-there minions, such as Robocrook, which is pretty much exactly what it sounds like, and Kneemoi, a shape-shifting alien and space outlaw.  The Chief is portrayed by Lynn Thigpen, who tragically died in 2003.  She had a number of film and TV roles, but I knew her best outside Carmen for her role in The Warriors as the radio announcer (“Stay tuned boppers”) in which you don’t actually see anything other than her lips.  She was a regular on early ‘2000s show The District.

The show consists of several segments.  First, general questions which moved into a “lightning round.”  The contestants would then watch an animated “phone tap” sketch in which Carmen would talk with the episode’s thief, (the segment  seems to possibly violate some serious fourth amendment rights (it is not revealed whether there are warrants for these wiretaps)).  When contestants correctly answered questions they received not points, but “ACME crime bucks.”  I’m still unclear on exactly what those crime bucks are redeemable for, and why a detective agency would have its own currency.  Next is “The Chase” while contestants answer questions while trying to ascertain where the thief is hiding out.  After this, one contestant is knocked out and the remaining two play the next round which is Carmen Sandiego’s version of Clue – they most locate the loot, the warrant and the crook (loot and crook I get – I have no idea why the warrant would be hidden).  The first contestant to get all three wins, and moves on to the final round.

The final round is the map round, in which the winner is asked to place markers with sirens on the top in specific countries within a continent (or in the first two seasons states within the US).  For example, if the continent is Asia, Lee would name Indonesia, and the contestant would keep trying until he correctly placed the marker on Indonesia on the map or pass.  Unfortunately for some contestants, not all continents are created equal.  Getting the US was a relative slam dunk compared to getting saddled with Africa.  Could you point out Burkina Faso on a map?

Apparently a German version was produced with the far catchier title of agd um die Welt – Schnappt Carmen Sandiego! or “Chase Around the World: Catch Carmen Sandiego” which sounds far more action oriented.

The most enduring legacy of the show may be a capella group Rockapella’s theme song, which was played at the end of every episode.

Before the theme, Lee would always command – DO IT ROCKAPELLA! (skip to 6:40 for the song, but start earlier if you want to enjoy a rare Africa map win)

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One Response to “Show of the Day: Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?”

  1. Beardface November 28, 2011 at 2:26 am #

    I was a master of all the Carmen Sandiego games, including the Europe one. I also was a multi-time Geography Bee winner, no big deal. Excellent choice of a show to post date for my birthday, though I could have done without being reminded that Rockapella existed.

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