‘Kaleidoscope’ Review: Netflix Heist Series Adds a Unique Viewing Experience to a Familiar Genre

The limited series is designed to be viewed in any order, with subscribers presented with episodes at random until the big finale heist

Kaleidoscope. Giancarlo Esposito as Leo Pap in episode “Blue” of Kaleidoscope. Cr. Courtesy of Netflix © 2022

The heist genre is always interesting because, despite its typically sleek, stylized nature, it usually brings a sense of comfort to the viewer. A movie like the blue-collar-tinged “Logan Lucky,” for example, wouldn’t be described as sleek — and perhaps not the same type of “aspirational” presentation of the criminal lifestyle that something like Soderbergh’s “Ocean’s” franchise is all about — but at the same time, it’s comforting for the same reasons as other heist media are. Because when it comes to the heist genre, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. When everything comes together, without fail, even the most rudimentary heist films and shows are still successes; because seeing the full picture and re-contextualizing everything is always satisfying. And Netflix’s new series “Kaleidoscope” fits that bill, but with a twist.

The selling point of Netflix’s new heist limited series — aside from it being a heist show that stars Giancarlo Esposito — essentially has to be its gimmick. And in this particular case, that gimmick is that (except for a brief introduction titled “Black” and the finale titled “White: The Heist”) the series can be viewed in random order. In fact, each Netflix user’s viewing experience will be completely different, with the streaming service suggesting the next episode you watch in a random order.

Created by screenwriter and author Eric Garcia (whose familiarity with the heist genre goes back to his 2002 novel “Matchstick Men,” for which he also wrote the screenplay adaptation), “Kaleidoscope” is intentionally designed and structured to work in any particular order. The episodes jump in chronology — one episode takes place six weeks before the big set piece heist and another is set seven years before, while yet another takes place six months after the heist.

In total, the show spans 25 years and is loosely inspired by a real-life story in which  $70 billion in bonds went missing in downtown Manhattan during Hurricane Sandy. Esposito’s Leo Pap is the mastermind behind the “Kaleidoscope” heist, leading a crew of thieves: Ava the weapons specialist (Paz Vega), Judy the explosives expert (Rosaline Elbay), Bob the safecracker (Jai Courtney), Stan the smuggler (Peter Mark Kendall), and RJ the driver (Jordan Mendoza). And they plan to steal from corporate security titan Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell) and his protege Hannah Kim (Tati Gabrielle).

The concept of the series is an interesting one, especially as it seemingly challenges the audience to step out of the comfort zone of a heist show, realizing the structure but seeing it play out in a different order from usual. Non-linear storytelling isn’t unique for heist thrillers, but “Kaleidoscope’s” approach to it has larger implications for Netflix’s attempts at storytelling moving forward, as well expanding the way serialization is looked at. After all, broadcast TV was initially designed so that any singular episode of a show can easily be a viewer’s first episode. Technically, that’s what the serialized “Kaleidoscope” is also attempting to do by making seven of its eight episodes a possible pilot (and randomizing the subsequent episodes outside of the finale).

But while the series is designed to work in any particular order, with audiences being left in the dark about certain plot points and character beats at times (though eagle-eyed heist viewers can easily put together a few pieces of the puzzle from various implications), that doesn’t necessarily mean that there isn’t a “correct” order in which to watch the series.

Despite the random order gimmick, it appears that critics were all provided the episode screeners in the same order, which one could presume to be the “correct” or “proper” order: “Black” (the series’ static intro), “Yellow: 6 Weeks Before,” “Green: 7 Years Before,” “Blue: 5 Days Before,” “Violet: 24 Years Before,” “Orange: 3 Weeks Before,” “Red: The Morning After,” “Pink: 6 Months After,” and then “White: The Heist” (the series’ static finale).

(Netflix’s description also suggests more rigidity than presented, as: “Some members may start with certain episodes (like episodes ‘Yellow’ or “Green’), then move deeper into their own personal viewing order with varying episodes (‘Blue’ or ‘Violet’ or ‘Orange,’ followed by “Red” or “Pink”) until the epic “White: The Heist” story finale.”)

While the episodes clearly still weren’t in chronological order, this particular episode order easily best fulfills the magic trick aspect of a heist, with “Yellow” getting the crew together, revealing a big twist that is, unfortunately, easy to guess in the opening moments of the episode, and paving the way for the subsequent episodes’ backfilling and foreshadowing. And more than any other episode — even “Green” and “Violet,” the episodes set years before the heist is in motion — “Yellow” is the one that truly feels like a pilot episode.

The series was originally titled “Jigsaw” (most likely changed so as not to confuse audiences into thinking they’re about to see something related to the “Saw” franchise) and the point of it all is to view the individual episodes as a puzzle piece. After all, in a puzzle, you don’t necessarily have to put pieces down in a specific order. The thing is, serialized television, in general, is already a collection of puzzle pieces. While “Kaleidoscope” is doing something technically different and interesting in its gimmick, it’s not reinventing the wheel. It’s just taking the idea of a “Choose Your Own Adventure” with less choice in the adventure. (Netflix has already proven that it is quite well-versed in that particular gambit, in interactive specials like “Black Mirror: Bandersnatch” and “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt: Kimmy vs. The Reverend.”)

Just as you know what you’re going to get with a heist show, you also know what you’re going to get with some of the casting choices in “Kaleidoscope.” Esposito’s casting adds gravitas and respectability to the series, Sewell brings forth a dependably smarmy villain to root against, and Courtney’s casting continues his post-2010s streak of fun, loose cannon character actor roles. Gabrielle’s most interesting work of the season, unfortunately, comes in her official introduction in “Yellow,” as (between this and “You”) Netflix has yet to provide her with a role as dynamic as her role as Tati in “Chilling Adventures of Sabrina.” Everyone in the series is essentially the straight man to Courtney’s Bob, though, which does speak to the lack of levity in the series as a whole.

In fact, despite the cool factor of heists, “Kaleidoscope” doesn’t seem concerned with that either. Instead, it’s the seediness, collateral damage and lack of honor among thieves that fuels the series. That’s why there’s still something about “Kaleidoscope” that makes it worth checking out and watching. While the tropes of the genre are definitely all still present, the only times they actually fall completely flat is when it comes to the federal agent (Niousha Noor) component of the equation, who absolutely fills the cliche quota of a grizzled lady cop who just can’t stop obsessing over the job. (Earlier this year, the “Inside No. 9” episode “Nine Lives Kat” hit the nail on the head of every single tired beat that “Kaleidoscope” plays with this particular character.)

But Esposito and Sewell anchor the series with their strength on opposite sides of the chessboard, and Courtney’s Bob is so blisteringly ignorant and toxic that it’s hard to look away.

These eight episodes, above all else, make a strong argument for “Kaleidoscope” to continue to exist as an anthology series, following a different heist or big caper that can be even better highlighted through this particular presentation strategy.

All eight episodes of “Kaleidoscope” are now streaming on Netflix.