Kaleidoscope: the Netflix heist show you can watch in any order you like
The big-money heist hit is fun and gripping – but it blows up the main rule of storytelling. Will being able to watch eight episodes in 40,320 random ways ever work?
If you are a certain type of viewer, the arrival of Netflix’s new drama Kaleidoscope will have filled you with excitement. That is because Kaleidoscope represents nothing less than a bold new vision of storytelling. There are eight episodes in total. Some are set before a heist, some after the heist and one episode concerns the heist itself. But here’s the thing: you can watch the episodes in any order you like.
There’s the (randomised) order that Netflix serves up, or any other order you can dream up on a whim. It’s a nice idea, isn’t it? After all, Netflix was the service that freed us from the shackles of linear scheduling, so it makes sense that it should now attempt to free us from the shackles of linear storytelling.
We are promised that there are 40,320 ways in which we can experience Kaleidoscope. Some will start with the episode entitled Green, which takes the form of a flashback. Then they might jump to Violet (another flashback), or Red (set in the immediate aftermath of the heist), or Blue (where the heist is being planned), or any of the other variously coloured episodes. The show wants you to end on White, which is the heist episode itself, but there’s nothing stopping you from watching it however you like.
Unlike, say, Bandersnatch – the interactive Black Mirror special designed to mimic the Choose Your Own Adventure books – everyone who finishes Kaleidoscope will have seen precisely all of it. There are no hidden secrets to unlock. You won’t gain access to any new scenes by watching the episodes in a certain order. By the time the credits roll on the finale, you will know as much about the show as everyone else who watches it. You will just have experienced it in a subtly different way.
Which leaves just one question. What is the point?
What is so frustrating about Kaleidoscope is that once you have sat through the whole thing and reordered it in your brain, it’s a pretty good show. It isn’t A-grade prestige drama, but it is fun and intermittently gripping – and just about preposterous enough to remain entertaining. The cast includes Rufus Sewell and Jai Courtney and, in a brief break from starring in everything else that has ever been made, Giancarlo Esposito. Sometimes it plays out like Hustle, sometimes like Heat. It really isn’t bad at all.
But sliced up and flung at you at random, it loses something. Perhaps it’s the way that all the characters have to be very subtly introduced in every episode because it might be the first one you see. Perhaps it’s how anticlimactic every episode feels because cliffhangers are impossible since by the nature of the format they won’t be resolved. Perhaps it’s because, in the actual chronological ending, Esposito has a moment of such powerhouse emotion that everything afterwards – including the planned finale itself – feels like an afterthought. Bad luck if you watch that one first, by the way.
In fact, it’s worse than that. For most of its existence, the joy of television was knowing we were all watching the same programmes at the same time. Good or bad, these shows united us. For all its brilliant convenience, Netflix destroyed this to the extent that people couldn’t discuss TV with friends without a careful little dance to ensure they wouldn’t spoil anything. And Kaleidoscope feels like another moment of destruction. Now, even if by some miracle we do end up watching it at the same time, it doesn’t matter because none of us are watching the same thing anyway.
There will come a point during Kaleidoscope, I guarantee, where you will start longing for the authoritative hand of a creator to guide you through. Clearly, lots of work has gone into making the whole thing cohesive in any order, but most of the time it still feels arbitrary; a bunch of flashbacks and flash-forwards hurled around in a blender and dished up with no thought of narrative satisfaction. The more I think about it, though, the more I’m convinced that the only way to watch Kaleidoscope is to do it chronologically. If you haven’t seen it yet, please do so in the following order: Violet, Green, Yellow, Orange, Blue, White, Red, Pink. You’re welcome.
As a storytelling experiment, Kaleidoscope has some merit. As a story, though, it’s messy and frustrating. In one episode, a case breaks open and sheets of coloured paper spill out all over the floor. One character looks at the mess and sighs “What the fuck is this shit?” Having sat through all of Kaleidoscope, I can relate.