The 1990s. Video Games. A capella music. PBS. Shark Tank. Unless you already know where I’m going with this, you’re probably having trouble understanding what all these things have in common. Lucky for you it’s Fun Friday, and it’s time to take a few minutes to find out.
Inspired by popular outrage about the state of 1980s education, a popular software company of the time decided to do something about it. Broderbund, known for its action hits, decided to create an educational game with a little bit of a bite. 1985’s Where in the world is Carmen Sandiego? was a stretch for the company, but became an instant hit and inspired a series of sequels that continue to this day.
History will remember the period from roughly 1985 to 1995 as the time when (apparently) sarcasm and irony were successfully used for the first time, and when pop culture truly became real culture. It was the rise of the now largely forgotten Generation X, whose nonplussed attitudes toward anything straight-laced dictated the tone of everything from television to cereals.
The most rad show ever to hit PBS
The early 1990s were a good time for PBS. The network, operated by government-funded nonprofits, had captured the hearts of the young people with programming like Sesame Street and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood, and wanted to continue to evolve its programming to reach out to the next generation, the yet-to-be-named millennials.
At the same time, Broderbund wanted to find a new marketing strategy for its game series. They settled on the idea of giving away the name and rights to the “Carmen Sandiego” character to PBS and allowing them to develop a kids’ game show based on the video game series.
The show was a runaway hit, attracting a cult following among much older viewers thanks to its snappy soundtrack (often performed live by a capella group Rockapella), slightly-off-kilter jokes, and the deadpan acting of actor Lynne Thigpen.
You wouldn’t think PBS could do a game show for kids, but they did and if you haven’t seen it, it’s pure ’90s perfection. Several episodes have been uploaded to YouTube, and here’s one of them:
The show is even the subject of a documentary from YouTubers Defunctland:
All things must (sorta) end
Although the ’90s TV show faded out by the middle of the decade, Carmen kept on going through additional TV shows, a live-action adaptation, and of course in the memories of all those who experienced it. Rockapella went on to moderate success and seems to still be around with different members today.
In the meantime, Broderbund was bought by SoftKey (which later became known as The Learning Company.) That company was founded by several people including Kevin O’Leary, known today as Mr. Wonderful from the ABC series Shark Tank. Mr. Wonderful sold his company to Mattel in 1999, becoming stupidly wealthy.
The deal was a disastrous one for Mattel. (This perhaps presaged some of the other deals done on Shark Tank.) Mattel stock tanked after the sale and the company parted company with O’Leary after only about a year.
Where is Carmen now?
Seemingly blessed with dozens of lives, the Carmen character lives on and on. She’s now in season 4 of her eponymous Netflix show, starring the always-charming Gina Rodriguez. Of course, times are different, and the character doesn’t resonate with kids as much as perhaps it used to. But, millennial and Gen-X parents are the ones seeing the name in Netflix’s infinite scroll. They seem to have propelled it to enough success to keep it going.
Yes folks, I still don’t know where in the world she is. I’ll bet you one thing, though. I’ll bet she’ll be there for a long time to come.