1023: Late-Night PBS
This comic examines the way the world seems different for adults today compared with how we remember it as a child, due to complex subtext or naïvety, to a humorous extreme, and with a specific reference to television programs for children.
PBS is a US public television network known for highbrow and educational programming, and shows a high proportion of BBC programming. The show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was a light-hearted educational game show that ran from 1991 to 1995. In the show players followed geography-based clues to find out where a master criminal, Carmen Sandiego, was going, and catch her. After catching (or failing to catch) Carmen Sandiego, a character called The Chief would congratulate or encourage the players. Rockapella was an a cappella band featured on the show that gave clues, punctuated the show with humor, and closed the show.
Megan recounts her surprise as to the nature of programming on late night PBS to Cueball. She claims to have fallen asleep after watching Downton Abbey and woken up to see that Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego is still making new episodes, but is significantly darker than she remembers it. The host has aged poorly (the show would have been off the air for 20 years) and developed a drinking problem; the locations the child contestants visit are traumatizing; and the children are clearly freaked out. In the end they find Carmen Sandiego hiding behind a Dutch bookcase, an allusion to The Diary of Anne Frank, thus implying that instead of aiding legitimate law enforcement in finding thieves they have been aiding the Nazis in their search for Jews (and others) to murder. The Chief admonishes the children for their actions and Rockapella glares at the children disapprovingly until the children break down in tears.
After Megan concludes her story, Cueball remarks that he did not remember the show being that dark. In response Megan replies that as kids, they may not have been able to understand the darker subtext of the show. It is true that some programs intended for children often have subtle themes for adults who may be watching the show with their children that the children do not usually remember or pick up on. The joke is that although young viewers may not be able to pick up on everything, they would certainly have noticed if the show was as dark as Megan described.
The title text describes the next program, an episode of The Joy of Painting, in which a depressingly weary painter paints unhappy trees. This contrasts with the usual mood of the show where Bob Ross was upbeat and the components of his paintings were described as "happy little" objects. Megan then postulates that either people are breaking into the television station to produce horrible programming, or she is experiencing hallucinations due to her sleep aid Ambien. This gives hallucination as an alternate explanation for the main comic.
- Mogadishu is the battle-torn capital city of Somalia, where the "Battle of Mogadishu" took place in 1993, which would coincide with the air dates of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego.
- The Killing Fields are a number of sites in Cambodia where large numbers of people were killed and buried by the Khmer Rouge regime, during its rule of the country from 1975 to 1979, following the end of the Cambodian Civil War (1970-1975).
- "A bookshelf in a Dutch apartment" is a reference to Anne Frank, a Jewish girl who hid from the Nazis with her family in a secret annex hidden behind a bookshelf in an apartment in Amsterdam. Her diary recounting her experiences was later published as the Diary of Anne Frank.
Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was originally an educational video game released in 1985. Carmen Sandiego was a mysterious character that the player tracked around the globe, attempting to find clues as to where she was heading to next. The game helped players learn geography and facts about the world while having fun. The video game inspired the TV show Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego?.
The show was split into three rounds. In the first round, there were three child contestants, called “gumshoes” on the show, who scored points for every question they answered correctly. The top two scoring gumshoes moved onto the next round, where they had to play a game based on the card game Concentration, in which they had to find the thief, warrant, and loot in the correct order. Whichever gumshoe did so captured the thief, saved the loot, and moved onto the next round, where they had a chance to catch Carmen Sandiego herself. Success was not always guaranteed in this round, as contestants had to plant flags correct on seven different countries in a continent within a very short time. If successful, they captured Carmen and won the grand prize (a trip to a place of their choosing in the continental US). If not, Carmen would escape and the contestant would win a lesser prize (such as a computer).
The role of The Chief was played by Lynne Thigpen. She explained the mission to the contestants, and gave some clues to the thief's last whereabouts. When the mission was over The Chief would appear and congratulate them if successful or console them if Carmen got away.
The host of the TV show was an actor named Greg Lee. His role was to ask the contestants questions, provide clues, and tell them which flags to plant on the map in the final round, as well as engage with The Chief and Rockapella to keep the show moving.
Rockapella was an a cappella group (a group that sings without any instruments), which sang the theme song to Where in The World Is Carmen Sandiego. Rockapella also acted as a "house band", singing songs while the contestants transitioned between events, providing clues, and playing pranks on the host along with other gags. At the end of each show, the host and the episode's winning contestant would shout "Do it, Rockapella!" at which point the band would sing the show's theme song.
The locations the contestants visit in the episode depicted in this comic seem to require traveling backwards in time (1993 for the Battle of Mogadishu, 1975-1979 for the Cambodian killing fields, and 1944 for the arrest of Anne Frank). Episodes of Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego did not deal with this, but its successor, Where in Time Is Carmen Sandiego?, did.
- [Megan with disheveled hair is rubbing sleep out of her eyes and talking to Cueball.]
- Megan: Have you ever watched PBS late at night?
- Megan: I fell asleep after Downton and woke up at like 3 AM.
- [The next panel is split in two. The upper portion, which is not in a frame, continues Megan's dialogue, while the lower part, in a frame, shows a drunk game-show host (indicated with two small bobbles and a third exploding next to his head). He has stubble and only little hair on his head. He is holding a bottle in one hand and the other hand is up over a TV monitor showing a black field filled with crosses, presumably graves, going out to the far off horizon. In front of him are three kids, who are contestants in the game. They stand behind three lecterns to the left. The first kid is a boy with thin black hair, who has turned away from the monitor. The middle kid is a girl with blonde hair in a ponytail who looks at the host, and the last kid looks like Cueball and he looks down at his lectern.]
- Megan (off-panel): Where in the World Is Carmen Sandiego was back on, except the host hadn't aged well and he'd clearly been drinking.
- Megan (off-panel): Every question took them to some horrible place like Mogadishu or the Cambodian killing fields.
- [In a room with tiles on the floor, a bookshelf full of books has been moved away from the wall revealing that is was a door to be opened with a hidden room behind it. Megan continues to speak, her text is above the shelf but inside the frame this time.]
- Megan (off-panel): The kids were freaked out, but they kept playing. Eventually they were told they'd found Carmen Sandiego hiding behind a bookshelf in a Dutch apartment.
- [Megan has stopped rubbing her eyes but still talks to Cueball.]
- Megan: The Chief appeared and asked "Are you proud of what you've become?"
- Megan: Then Rockapella walked out and just glared at the kids until they started crying.
- Cueball: I, uh, don't remember the old show being that dark.
- Megan: Maybe we were too young to pick up on it.
- This is the second comic posted on a Leap Day (February 29), it was a Wednesday in 2012.
- The previous leap day was the first after xkcd began, and that day fell on a Friday in 2008, and the first leap day comic 390: Nightmares was released then.
- The leap day after this comic also fell on a Friday in 2016 and 1649: Pipelines was released then.
- If the current M-W-F schedule continues, the next such comic will not happen before 2036 when the leap day again falls on a Friday.
- Interesting to note that the first three leap years after xkcd began (in just over 10 years) all fell on a release day, then followed by a break of 20 years. And three of these first four leap days all fell on a Friday.
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