In the universe of children’s TV, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (PBS; daily; check local listings) and Shining Time Station (PBS; daily; check local listings) take opposite approaches to attract their young audiences. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego? wants to be zippily fast; it’s an up-to-the-minute, MTV-influenced show that hopes to teach kids something about geography. Shining Time Station wants to slow things down; it’s an old-fashioned show that creates a gentle, lulling atmosphere to convince children that life is fun and that trains are the way to travel.
Carmen Sandiego is based on a popular computer game about Carmen, a fictional spy and thief. The TV series is structured like a game show: Three young contestants try to capture Carmen and various members of her criminal gang by answering world geography questions that provide clues to Carmen’s whereabouts. The contestants are always referred to as ”gumshoes” and work as operatives for a 1940s-style detective agency overseen by the show’s host, Greg Lee, as well as ”the Chief,” played by Lynne Thigpen. (The stern Thigpen is obviously a new TV symbol of authority — this season she also has a recurring role as a district attorney on L.A. Law.)
In one recent edition of Carmen, the young people were asked to define South African apartheid, to locate Zimbabwe on a map of Africa, and to parrot facts about upstate New York and the history of Atlantic City, N.J., based on a paragraph of information that Lee had read to them earlier. In between, the Chief kept interrupting to yell, ”Hurry up, hurry up!” because Carmen was supposedly escaping to some far-flung corner of the globe. And, for utterly no reason at all, we were subjected to snippets of songs by the insufferably coy vocal group Rockapella, a regular act on this show.
Just as a generation ago Sesame Street divided viewers into two camps — children who instantly adored it and adults unnerved by how fast it all moved — so it is now with Carmen: My 10-year-old loves this noisy carnival of a show; I can watch only about 15 minutes of it before getting annoyed. As entertainment, Carmen is harmless, but its educational value seems minimal;in the dithering half hour mentioned above, it is unlikely that any child sitting at home learned anything more about Zimbabwe or Atlantic City other than the fact that they exist. If kids enjoy Carmen, they might be inspired to crack their geography books a bit harder, but the show itself doesn’t seem to offer much in the way of enlightenment.
By contrast, Shining Time Station doesn’t seek to educate but rather to comfort. Now in its second season, Shining Time offers the live-action adventures of a stationmaster, Stacy Jones (Didi Conn), and a trio of kids (Ari Madger, Erica Luttrell, and Danielle Marcot) who like to hang around her cozy, old-fashioned train station. They are regularly visited by Mr. Conductor, an 18-inch-high sprite who narrates stories about Thomas the Tank Engine, a British-made series featured on the show.
In its first season, Shining Time was an interesting cultural hybrid, combining American actors with Ringo Starr, who, shrunk down to sprite-size, played Mr. Conductor and recited the imported Thomas the Tank Engine tales in his warm Liverpudlian accent. This season, the balance is decidedly more American with the departure of Starr, who has been replaced by comedian George Carlin.
So far, Carlin seems awkward and self-conscious as Mr. Conductor, rolling his eyes and mugging too much. Where Starr narrated the Thomas tales with a lilting, conversational murmur, Carlin puts a cutesy archness into his delivery that’s condescending and annoying. Think kids don’t pick up on this sort of thing? Even before I looked at the new episodes, the major Shining Time fan in our house, a 6-year-old, announced that ”the new conductor is corny.”
Otherwise, Shining Time is well done — Conn radiates both intelligence and affection, and the show features a funny, sometimes truly scary villain in the character of Schemer (Brian O’Connor), who’s always trying to bilk the kids out of money and candy — and who always receives his proper comeuppance. Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?: C Shining Time Station: B