Where in the world has Carmen Sandiego been? On Jan. 18, after a 20-year absence of our favorite former spy turned international thief, Netflix will bring back the character with an eponymous animated series starring Gina Rodriguez. The iconic edutainment character first debuted in a 1985 video game, and since then, she has whisked millions of children to every corner of the world, stealing treasures and causing mischief. The last iteration, the animated TV series, “Where on Earth Is Carmen Sandiego?”, with Rita Moreno voicing the antiheroine, wrapped in 1999.
But executive producer Caroline Fraser feels now more than ever, the television landscape needs a show such as this. “We felt like kids really would benefit from a reigniting of learning about and celebrating cultures around the world. And we also felt like from an entertainment perspective, there were not many action adventure heroes that featured female hero leads, particularly a Latina heroine,” she tells Variety. “Those two things together made it feel like it was the right time to bring it back to a new generation.”
Ahead of the show’s premiere, executive producers Fraser and Duane Capizzi talk with Variety about the modern day Carmen, Moreno’s involvement in the reboot and a relationship on the show that even got the crew “up in arms.”
How did you approach doing the reboot, especially since there have been so many released in the past few years?
Capizzi: You have to write and conceive and tell the story for two audiences to make a reboot successful. There’s the temptation to just write for the audience that remembers the original Carmen. Nostalgia has a strong pull, but you also have to write for a new generation of kids, of 6- to 11-year-olds. I really tried to make it so that the 7-year-olds can follow it and we’re not leaving them in the dust by making references that they haven’t seen.
Fraser: She is still the world’s best superthief. She still has super skills, but no super powers. She still has the red hat and the trench coat; she’s still traveling around the world; she’s still dealing with the dual forces of V.I.L.E. and ACME [Detective Agency] in every episode. She is still about action and adventure, but then you have to bring something new to it.
In the original series, Carmen is Latina but light-skinned. In the reboot, she’s darker skinned. Was that a conscious choice, for a different kind of representation?
Fraser: We had to invent a fresh current new look for her, which we did thanks to the brilliance of Kevin Dart and his team at Chromosphere. We didn’t necessarily draw the character to look like Gina, although I do think they look alike and that’s a happy accident.
Capizzi: We didn’t want to shy away from the fact that she is a Hispanic role model.
How much of her personal heritage and background are we going to find out in the show?
Capizzi: Our reimagining of her backstory is that she was raised at a school for thieves on V.I.L.E. Island. And so while she didn’t grow up in a specifically Hispanic cultural environment, she definitely grew up in an international environment. Carmen exploring her true past will be a constant touchstone in her series.
How important is it to give Carmen a love interest on the show?
Capizzi: We toy with that. There are definitely relationships, but I wouldn’t say love. I think romance is tricky in kids’ shows. There’s at least one relationship that a lot of people on our crew, in particular, really get up in arms about, and there’s been a lot of discussion about whether or not Carmen should wind up with a particular character.
Will Rita Moreno lend her voice to this iteration?
Capizzi: I am grinning from ear to ear right now. Yes, she absolutely [does]. She does have a significant role in the series, and it’s a semi-recur, so she won’t be in every episode, but we’re very excited about having her, and she was a delight to work with. And Gina just wigged out at the prospect of having both Carmens in our show, past and present.
How will the episodes play out, in terms of chronology?
Capizzi: Our first two episodes are the origin story. The main timeline of the series is definitely present day with her as a young adult. It was in large part Netflix who really encouraged serialization, and it really pushed us to a place where things that happened in Episode 3 are alluded to Episode 10. It really makes the world richer that the characters seem to have real memory and it connects.
Fraser: This universe, it’s really a large and complex universe around Carmen Sandiego, that is introduced in this new series. It really is a coherent mythology of her world and all the forces at play: her past, her present, her future. That is what this series lays down and for the new Carmen Sandiego going forward, that is then carried through all the iterations of Carmen.
Like a Carmen Sandiego Cinematic Universe?
Fraser: We hope so.
The first season of “Carmen Sandiego” streams Jan. 18 on Netflix.