On the surface, Kaleidoscope is a straightforward, albeit generic, heist story. It hits all of the beats you’d expect: the revenge-filled backstory, the complex process of finding a team and forming a plan, and the satisfaction of watching that plan unfold. And since Kaleidoscope’s story spans around 25 years, you get plenty of all of those things over the course of its eight episodes. But that’s not what makes the show interesting. Kaleidoscope is also a fascinating experiment, an attempt to tell the kind of drama most viewers are familiar with — but designed so that you can watch episodes in any order. As a nonlinear story, it’s a success — but as a fun crime caper, Kaleidoscope leaves a lot to be desired.
The series is centered on Leo (Giancarlo Esposito), a career criminal and the mastermind behind a plan to steal $7 billion in bonds from a seemingly impenetrable vault in New York. To do that, he assembles a seven-person team of experts (meaning the bounty splits into an even $1 billion each) to steal the money as part of a long-running revenge plot. Because the show covers such a large span of time, you get to see Leo and the rest of the crew — which includes everyone from a hot-headed safecracker (Jai Courtney) to a chemist who loves to experiment with new concoctions (Rosaline Elbay) — at various points in their lives.
But how you approach that story is largely up to you. There’s a specific episode you’re meant to watch as the finale, which covers the actual events of the heist. But the rest of the episodes are meant to be watched in any order. I started out chronologically, seeing Leo as an up-and-coming jewel thief and later, as he ages inside a prison. Then I chose to jump around a bit: I watched the prep for the heist, then the day after it took place, and rounded it out with the day before. Then I jumped into the finale.
The order you watch the episodes doesn’t change how the story plays out. There’s no interactive element here. But the order does change how you perceive each episode. Because I started chronologically, I already understood the history between Leo and Roger (Rufus Sewell), the security expert he’s trying to rob; if I had watched it the other way around, their backstory would have been a major reveal. At least in the order I happened to watch it in, the nonlinear structure worked quite well. The heist itself is the center, with all of the other stories orbiting around it, providing all the necessary detail so you can understand just went down and why certain events are important.
The problem with Kaleidoscope isn’t the structure; it’s with the show itself. It’s very uneven. There are some fun action-filled heist moments; the finale in particular is a highlight. And I really enjoyed the ridiculously convoluted plan, which involves not only strange high-tech gadgets but also some low-tech solutions like actual bees (seeing how they get used might be my favorite part). But the storyline is packed with cliches to the point that none of the big reveals — at least in the order I watched it in — felt like much of a shock. The cast does its best with the material in front of them, and the criminal gang is often a charming bunch, but they’re saddled with drab dialogue and, in some cases, some of the worst de-aging makeup I can recall seeing. (It’s so bad that the actors struggle to emote with their faces.)
There are other elements that feel not particularly well thought-out. For instance, each episode is named after a color, and the story is related to that in some way. The “Violet” episode connects to a specific piece of jewelry, while “Pink” relates to a cherished childhood object. It’s a nice idea, but the connections between color and theme often feel tenuous and unimportant. And on the technical side, Netflix’s insistence on automatically playing the next episode was a little annoying when I was trying to plot my own particular journey through this story.
While I wish the show itself were more thrilling, Kaleidoscope does work as a proof of concept. And it’s especially interesting as Netflix continues to experiment with nonlinear and interactive storytelling, from the “choose your own adventure” style of Black Mirror: Bandersnatch to live-action video games like Immortality (which is available on mobile exclusively through Netflix’s app). Kaleidoscope isn’t the future of TV — but it does hint at one direction that future might go in.
Kaleidoscope is streaming on Netflix now.