How Netflix’s Kaleidoscope stumbles with its core gimmick
A kaleidoscope is defined as
“a toy consisting of a tube… with loose pieces of colored glass and mirrors.”
Which, for the Netflix heist-drama Kaleidoscope, seems appropriate.
Before anything else, we have to talk about the show’s core gimmick. The episode order is randomized for each Netflix account. Or at least randomized to a certain extent, as there is a designated final episode.
The unspoken promise here, of course, that each episode is a completely standalone experience. The order you watch this is unique to you, and therefore the entire experience — which characters you root for the longest, the amount of time between certain callbacks, the overall pace and flow of the information and emotional twists, etc. — is a mathematically unique personal perspective.
This promise is huge and greatly enticing. The ceiling is a push-and-pull of action and backstories, of intrigue both answered and unanswered. The floor is perhaps a straightforward, linear anticipation; or maybe a middle stretch that can’t match the grander bookends. But without question, this gimmick is an incredibly effective selling point, and the subsequent hype around Kaleidoscope is personally enough to call it a success.
Ultimately, however, this is all ideal. And this wide net of possible experiences is also the show’s biggest hindrance.
Bridging the gap between story and gimmick is having episode titles represented by colors rather than numbers. Each of the eight colors is significant to different characters within its episode. A scarf worn on a fateful day; a picturesque beach in someone’s dreams; an inconspicuous USB. Uniform episode titles are always welcome and can help tie larger stories together.
The colors are, perhaps, primarily a motif used to replace the numbers. The titles did work naturally for 2 or 3 episodes; but in the grand scheme of things, it wasn’t really necessary. And that seems to be the underlying theme in this series, the hypnotizing pattern in our colorful toy.
But let’s talk about the story because there is one.
Kaleidoscope is a story about a meticulous bank heist, with the focus on our loosely-aligned team of desperate hopefuls. The team comprises a combination of former cellmates, lovers, former lovers, and a driver.
Chronologically, the show goes:
- Violet (24 years before),
- Green (7 years before),
- Yellow (6 weeks before),
- Orange (3 weeks before),
- Blue (5 days before),
- White (day of),
- Red (morning after), and,
- Pink (6 months after).
White consistently registers as the final episode.
Each episode is/can be its own standalone thing; there is some truth to it. But episodes of any good show are supposed to do that anyway. In actuality, the biggest source of tension in Kaleidoscope is not between action and backstory or answered and unanswered questions. The biggest source of tension is, in fact, between stronger episodes and weaker episodes.
For instance, Violet is almost an entire movie about Ray and Roger’s thick as thieves relationship decades before the heist. A near-failed house theft starts turning the gears in Ray’s mind that these close calls won’t ever favor him over Roger. So, Ray turns and abandons that lifestyle, starting an auto-parts business and allowing him to spend more time with Lily and Hannah. But a timely visit from Roger years later reawakens the vengeful part of Ray, who agrees to do just one more job for Lily’s former employers. Employers whom Lily still kept in contact with down to that fateful day.
And, of course, it’s depicted as another close call — much closer than the first. And Ray is doing the work while Roger is rubbing elbows with the rich, white elite. And there are twists, betrayals, and in-episode callbacks. A tragic building fire and a tragic death. Contrast all that with Blue, primarily tied together by the 7-step heist plan, and the team sharing what they each dream of doing once they have the money. Or Red, which paints dissension right after the heist, with a classic “Did you screw me over?” narrative, albeit punctuated by an effective cliffhanger.
Some episodes have more going for them, whether on an emotional or plot-oriented level. With any other series, this is just an expected fact. But when the series encourages any episode, barring 1, to be watched in whatever order you desire; the ideal trade-off is that: (1) None of the episodes are allowed to miss, and (2) The prescribed finale had better be more insane than all the other episodes. And unfortunately, on both accounts, the show just didn’t hit.
Just as a tiny aside, the characters in this plot-driven show deserve a shout. Ray/Leo is an excellent main character, as the mastermind that you just cannot look away from. Bob the goon has a surprisingly strong antihero episode, despite his effective work as the series’ giant asshole. RJ is the absolute MVP, given his screen time.
Most others, such as Ava, seemed like a wait-and-see project. Like there could be something intensely lovable to them later. But if you’re more than halfway through a show still playing a game of chicken, maybe it’s not the best aspect. Look for that lovable somewhere else.
The best word I’d use to describe the experience of Kaleidoscope is disjointed. For all the promise of push-and-pull, the resulting feeling was that of whiplash. Some episodes just lent themselves more naturally to being the opening episode, or as follow-up to a certain episode, etc. Messing with the sensible structure of a set beginning-middle-end seems to have benefited the show before and after the watch but not during. Even still, I find the ambition to mess with structure commendable. (After all, I wasn’t lured in by the prospect of another heist on Netflix.) This show’s buzz may very well lead to an experimental/interactive series trend, and I’m absolutely here for it.
A second way Kaleidoscope might feel disjointed is by removing the social element of watching with others, that is if you really want to make use of your personalized episode sequence. Discussing and comparing your different sequences with your friends may well be part of the fun here, but it’s not really going to be the same as just watching the show with your friends. So, if this social element is important to you, this is just something to keep in mind.
As a whole, Kaleidoscope is a tale of two experiences: the show and the hype around the show. The cool part is that the second seems designed to fix the first; the problem is that the first seems to need help. But at the end of the day, you will likely still recommend the show, if for nothing else, to assure a better experience for those after you.
So, if you do — and I still do, my disappointment is proof I cared enough — this is my simple suggestion: watch it in chronological order. The show is solid enough as is without the time-jump gimmick. Or if you really need that extra spice, watch it chronologically but backward. If you couldn’t already tell, Violet and Pink are highlights of the series.
Or take the curated suggestions of these Twitter users:
A kaleidoscope is defined as
“a situation, pattern, etc., contains many different parts that are always changing.”
Which, for the Netflix heist-drama Kaleidoscope, seems appropriate enough.