Kaleidoscope is now streaming on Netflix.
A thrilling heist story told well is always a good time. There are plenty of ways to do it: telling it linear, non-linear, from disparate points of view, or even through flashbacks. But Netflix’s new thriller series, Kaleidoscope, gets creativity points for letting the audience decide how they’ll watch this heist unfold by choosing the viewing order of seven of the eight episodes however they want. This Rorschach test approach gives the viewer a unique lens into the players, the history, and dynamics of the heist based on their personal whims. For non-linear aficionados, it’s a fun playground experiment. For those who background-watch their TV, it requires an investment of time and attention that doesn’t necessarily pay off with anything as clever as the concept.
From the jump, viewers can choose to watch any seven of the eight color-coded episodes in any order they like. Netflix orders them thusly: "Yellow: 6 Weeks Before the Heist,” "Green: 7 Years Before the Heist,” "Blue: 5 Days Before the Heist,” "Orange: 3 Weeks Before the Heist,” "Violet: 24 Years Before the Heist,” "Red: The Morning After the Heist," and "Pink: 6 Months After." Watching all seven unlocks episode eight, "White: The Heist." Based on the episode titles alone, one can plan their viewing strategy, from a random chaos approach to the “MCUing it” path of replicating a close-to-linear presentation of the origins of the scrappy crew of criminals led by Ray Vernon/Leo Pap (Giancarlo Esposito) who plan to steal $7 billion worth of untraceable bearer bonds from Pap’s former criminal wing man-turned-legit security mogul, Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell). Regardless of your entry point, the episodes essentially have to stand alone so you can follow who the players are, figure out your moral allegiances as the plot points unfold, and then note any crucial clues that will foreshadow any double crosses or big reveals that appear along the way.
Smartly, creator Eric Garcia pins the weight of the concept on the able shoulders of Esposito who knows how to lead an ensemble, and can dial in a performance that makes eventual big swings and reveals work as revelations become more frequent going into the endgame. As Ray/Leo, Esposito is commanding and competent when it comes to the grift, yet vulnerable and human when it comes to his personal circumstances and the stakes at play when he takes on this job. Essentially, it’s a revenge scheme for Ray/Leo against Roger, and for everyone else it’s a life-changing sum of money that not only gives them ultimate bragging rights, but a pile of cash that will afford each of them the ability to fund a life redo.
The eclectic crew we get to know in each episode includes Leo’s closest allies: his lawyer and weapons expert Ava Mercer (Paz Vega), with whom he has a great chemistry throughout; former cellmate Stan Loomis (Peter Mark Kendall), a smart smuggler and planner who proved his loyalty during Rey’s prison break; and Hannah (Tati Gabrielle), Rey/Leo’s daughter who is a security VP at Roger’s firm. And then there’s Stan’s former flame, Judy (Rosaline Elbay), who is an explosives and disguise artist who married an absolute blustering jerk, Bob (Jai Courtney), the safe cracker and impulsive ass who makes more problems than he seems to be worth. Lastly, there’s RJ Acosta Jr. (Jordan Mendoza), the fidgety but smart driver.
The key to getting an audience “all-in” with a heist story is always based on the strength of the heist planners and their ingenuity in setting up and executing their wiley plans. Kaleidoscope does have an engaging cast, but no one in the ensemble is really pushing outside of the genre’s tropes. The biggest character in the pack, by far, is Bob with Courtney chewing up every scene he’s in. He pulls a lot of focus and his behavior pretty much points to him as someone not to trust.
Aesthetically, composer Dominic Lewis should get a lot of praise for providing an energetic underpinning to all of the planning scenes, and small grifts leading to the big grift adding bounce and personality to the piece as a whole. But in general, there’s none of the flashiness of, say, an Ocean’s 11 (2001)-style heist, or the sexiness of Out of Sight (1998). This is more perfunctory in its execution, which technically is in keeping with the off-the-radar quarry being sought and the players who own the goods, and those who want to take them. But that overall lack of zhuzh keeps Kaleidoscope’s storytelling from really rising to the level of its unusual presentation, or even the great heist stories that already exist.
For those interested in TV writing, the series is a fascinating exercise in how to tell a story that has to be a solid entry point for an audience with every episode. Some are better entry points than others, but Garcia and his writers do a deft job setting up the characters in a fresh way in every episode without it feeling like it’s just a series of new pilots.