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The story recounted in Netflix’s Kaleidoscope is undeniably juicy — a small team of thieves use a Category 4 hurricane as cover to make off with $7 billion in unsecured bonds — but even more attention-grabbing is the way it’s told. Eric Garcia’s miniseries is designed so that viewers may watch its episodes in any order. Depending on the path you take, you’ll have a different perspective on what the show’s deepest mysteries are, which characters seem sympathetic or villainous, and whether certain beats play as setup or payoff.
Or at least that’s the idea. And it’s one that works fine, at least in the sense that it really is possible to follow what happens no matter how it unfolds. Whether it actually enhances the narrative, however, is another question entirely, and one with a rather less inspiring answer.
In part, the series suffers from a lack of commitment to the bit. Gimmick aside, the installments actually lend themselves to a fairly straightforward linear progression. Kaleidoscope‘s chapters, each named after a color, are broken up not by character or theme (which might make it genuinely difficult to figure out which pieces to prioritize, or to sort the clues from the red herrings), but into discrete chunks of time, with captions situating each one along a 24-year stretch.
In that light, watching an installment set the morning after the heist (“Red”) before one set several days earlier (“Blue”) — as I did — feels less like a personalized interactive experience than like, well, watching a show out of order. My colleague Dan Fienberg recently penned a screed against the overuse of in medias res openings; zigzagging through Kaleidoscope essentially turns it into one in medias res opening after another, without the level of shock necessary to render any of them worthwhile.
At least “Yellow,” set six weeks before the crime, turned out to be as good a place for me to start watching the series as any. This segment picks up with mastermind Leo (Giancarlo Esposito) as he sets into motion his long-simmering plans for the crime, assembling a team and gathering the money and equipment they’ll need to pull it off. In classic heist-thriller fashion, each recruit fulfills a very cool and specific role — the driver, the safecracker, the chemist, etc. Also in classic heist-thriller fashion, the fun lies in watching these clashing personalities bond or butt heads or cast suspicion on one another as their talents click together to accomplish the unimaginable.
Or, again, that’s the idea. In practice, Kaleidoscope feels like a slick but forgettable two-hour movie puffed up into a jumbled six-hour saga. The main advantage of its unorthodox structure is that it helps obscure how generic some of its component pieces really are. A love triangle subplot hinges on relationships so thinly sketched that I kept assuming I hadn’t gotten around yet to whatever chapter was finally going to explain these people. It wasn’t until I’d gulped down the whole season that I realized that, no, the person at its center was simply never granted an inner life to begin with.
Perhaps worse, the elements about the show that do work tend to get lost in the mild but constant confusion engendered by its approach. Esposito is a fine anchor as Leo, able to project steely authority and disarming vulnerability at the same time, and his relationships with other key characters — like Roger (Rufus Sewell), his wealthy-businessman mark — account for most of the emotional heft. But scattering their chronology only makes it more difficult to track these journeys, thus blunting their impact.
(And yes, I know I’m being obnoxiously vague. If I’m doing the math correctly, there are over 5,000 possible ways to get through the season if you follow Netflix’s half-hearted assertion that “White,” the installment covering the heist itself, is intended as the finale — or over 40,000 if you decide to chuck that suggestion out the window. All of which means it’s impossible for me to guess what might count as a “spoiler” to anyone else.)
Used well, a time-hopping structure can tease big twists, offer conflicting perspectives, bring us closer to a character’s inner turmoil or draw out thematic parallels between past and present. But with no way of knowing what the audience knows already, this series keeps its mysteries so basic they barely qualify as mysteries at all. In one episode, characters fret about the possibility of a mole in their midst; another one, set earlier in the timeline, lays out the who and the why. A more traditionally organized show might have been able to wring breathless tension from the scenario, in either direction. Kaleidoscope settles for brushing past the question so lightly that it amounts to an afterthought.
If nothing else, creator Garcia deserves credit for his ambition. His series is one of only a handful that have tried to push the Netflix format in genuinely novel directions — along with that little-loved season of Arrested Development where the entire season’s worth of events took place simultaneously, and that choose-your-own-adventure installment of Black Mirror.
And yes, OK, your mileage here may vary, depending on your personal taste for disorientation or perhaps on the order of installments that you ultimately choose. I can only speak to the one I went with. From where I’m sitting, at the end of my serpentine tour through its plot, Kaleidoscope proves only that a jigsaw-puzzle approach to narrative can be done — but not that there’s any particular reason to do it.
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