'Carmen Sandiego' is entertaining geography


September 30, 1991|By Michael Hill

Those seeking to blame video games for the current downward trend in Western Civilization now must answer to Carmen Sandiego.

Actually, they don't have to answer to her so much as they have to answer the question, "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?"

That question will be posed daily for a half hour on PBS starting today in a game show aimed at kids. "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" is based on the video game of the same name. The purpose of both is to teach and test knowledge of geography.

The quiz show airs at 5:30 p.m. on Maryland Public Television, channels 22 and 67. It will be kicked off by a one-hour special in prime time at 8 o'clock tonight that is essentially two episodes back-to-back.

Aimed at 8- to 13-year-olds -- though plenty of viewers several decades beyond that will learn a thing or three in each game -- "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" is fast and fun. The three young contestants in the game are temporarily in the employ of the Ace Crimenet detective agency, headed by The Chief, a taciturn goof played by Lynne Thigpen.

As in the computer game, the object is to track down Carmen Sandiego, a notorious criminal who, along with her cohorts, is always doing things like running off with the Mona Lisa or the Statue of Liberty's torch. To catch the bad guys, you have to figure out where they are. And you do that by listening to geographical clues about cities and countries.

These can range from the name of the currency to a staple crop, the name of a river or mountain range to customs of dressing or eating. Greg Lee, a veteran of Nickelodeon's "Total Panic," hosts with appropriate pizazz, keeping everything moving along briskly.

"Carmen Sandiego" looks like a regular game show on a weird set. The three kids stand behind little desks and hold up their answers and have a point total displayed before them. Their every move provokes wild applause from the studio audience.

The clue-filled questions about cities and countries might come from Lee, from The Chief, who comes in over an old TV -- that also brings in questions from special guests ranging from Walter Cronkite to Kool Moe De -- or from various characters who show up unexpectedly, including the Dying Snitch, who delivers his message while elaborately breathing his last breath.

A second round calls for quick answers, a third round is a "Concentration"-like test of memory, and a final round, for the big prize, is an almost impossible task of identifying a bunch of a continent's countries on a big map, in 45 seconds.

This is all held together by wonderful a capella music from a group called Rockapella, whose members play many of the characters.

What's nice about "Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?" is that in addition to being genuinely entertaining, it also is a genuine test of the competitor's knowledge.

Too many of these game shows for kids pick their winners by pure luck, almost as if afraid to distinguish those who know the answers from those who don't.

Not "Carmen Sandiego." You've got to know your stuff -- and those who were educated before the current multicultural trend will probably be surprised at how much they know about the geography of the United States and Europe and how little about the rest of the world. Quick! Point out Zambia on a map of Africa.

You may note at the end of the program the credits say that the competitors have been briefed, but the producers say that merely means they have been shown how to play the game, not fed any questions or answers.

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