Netflix’s experiment in “watch it in whatever order you want” still only delivers a typical heist story.
You gotta love a good gimmick. Whether it’s the current 4DX offerings in theatres (which harkens back to the “Tingler” era of Castle silliness) or Netflix dalliances with “Choose Your Own Adventure”-esque stories like Black Mirror’s “Bandersnatch,” or Kimmy Schmidt, there’s an undeniable charm in centering the device. Kaleidoscope is the latest entry in these sorts of experiments. It offers an eight episode heist story that audiences can theoretically watch in any order. Only the episode titled “White” has a specific place in the order: last. That’s a recommendation this reviewer firmly endorses.
Unfortunately, like so many of these gimmicky endeavors, Kaleidoscope fails to live up to its device. Or rather, without the device, it is a heist story largely devoid of anything especially new or noteworthy.
Spanning 24 years, the story revolves around the theft of Roger Salas’ (Rufus Sewell) extremely high-tech vault. It is a caper designed to cut the man down shortly after he’s secured his biggest contract to date. Leading the heist is Leo (Giancarlo Esposito), an aging thief who shares a past with Roger. His ex-cellmate Stan (Peter Mark Kendall)—who’s great at getting whatever you need—and long-time friend/attorney/arms dealer Ava (Paz Vega) join in. Stan’s ex-girlfriend Judy (Rosaline Elbay) is brought in for her chemical expertise. She can’t do anything without her husband, the ode to toxic masculinity safecracker Bob (Jai Courtney). Rounding out the group is newbie driver RJ (Jordan Mendoza).
Complicating matters are an FBI agent obsessed with Ava, Nazan Abassi (Niousha Noor). Her partner Sam Toby (Bubba Weiler) follows close behind, in small part due to his massive crush. There’s also Hannah Kim (Tati Gabrielle), one of Roger’s most trusted employees. She has a secret deep connection to the criminal crew, suggesting split allegiances.
Largely, the acting is good. Sewell is fun in his younger years incarnation, playing flirty and fun with a soupcon of sleaze. It’s something he rarely, if ever, gets to do in American productions. Esposito is a predictably excellent centerpiece. Courtney proves once again that he’s way better as a jerk who likes to have a good time than he ever was as a leading man. Overall though, Vega turns in the most consistently excellent performance of the series. Her character has more complexity on the page than most of the cast, but it wouldn’t work without her nailing it.
Unfortunately, like so many of these gimmicky endeavors, Kaleidoscope fails to live up to its device.
On the less positive side, Noor does well with what she’s given, but the character never really makes a case for herself. She’s the most clichéd figure—a cop who’s ruining her life with her obsession—and the time Kaleidoscope spends on her tends to make the story go slack. Gabrielle gets it even worse. A couple of episodes set her up as a crucial player, only for her to more or less disappear. Then she gets a massive twist in “White” that reverses a considerable amount of her characterization. Finally, a pair of enforcer types show up late in the game as comedic relief. They feel flown in from another series and wreck the otherwise well-done tone of the show.
To be fair, almost everyone’s performances dip in the pair of episodes that focus on the heist’s aftermath. Everyone feels a bit more cartoonish, their connections to each other and the audience suddenly murkier and less compelling. As a result, what should be two of the tensest and most attention-grabbing installments instead feel nonessential.
This may be partly due to the order in which this reviewer watched them. While one can do them in any order, watching “Pink” before “Red” sapped both installments of their inherent tension. Additionally, “Pink” ’s crosscutting between where all the various players are six months after the hike reduced nearly everyone to two-dimensional representations of the (relatively) complex characters they had been previously. So while I won’t weigh in on an ideal order in general, I’d definitely recommend saving “Pink” for second to last (before the must watch last “White”) for the best viewing experience.
Overall, the series losing control of its tone and poor character management sinks the endeavor. It is easy to imagine this “watch in any order” gimmick working, and well, with a different heist story or perhaps a murder mystery. Sadly, in this case, it’s a fun idea in search of a stronger show. Kaleidoscope is rarely outright bad, but it is too frequently not especially good.
Netflix’s vaults are no match for Kaleidoscope beginning January 1.