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Netflix’s Kaleidoscope Doesn’t Need Its Biggest Gimmick

The heist show is entertaining in spite of its twisty timeline, not because of it.
  • Giancarlo Esposito and Paz Vega in Kaleidoscope (Photo: Netflix)
    Giancarlo Esposito and Paz Vega in Kaleidoscope (Photo: Netflix)

    Fans of forgotten pop music should have a blast watching Kaleidoscope, Netflix’s latest entry in the “stylish crime” genre. Like every other show of its ilk, this one contrasts violence with a charming soundtrack, creating an ironic detachment that assures us the mayhem is all just pretend. And while it does indulge in the cliche of scoring a slow-mo sequence with “Sympathy for the Devil,” it mostly picks deeper cuts. During a savage home break-in, we hear “Let’s Think About Living,” Bob Luman’s jokey plea for singers of the early ’60s to stop singing about death. When a group of robbers goes to work during a hurricane, we naturally hear a tune about rain, but instead of, say, “Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head,” it’s Irma Thomas’ R&B gem “It’s Raining.”

    Touches like these add sparkle to the standard-issue story, which revolves around a career criminal named Leo Pap (Giancarlo Esposito) assembling a team of specialized crooks to help him rob one of the world’s most powerful financial security firms. This will sound familiar to anyone who has seen Money Heist, the Spanish thriller about a group of bank robbers that found a massive global audience when it hit Netflix in 2017. And Leo’s crew of hoodlums should conjure memories of both The Usual Suspects and the Ocean’s Eleven franchise. It’s easy to imagine all those properties being referenced in the pitch meeting that got this show made.

    But even if it’s been assembled from a kit, the show has flair. It helps that Esposito is such a vibrant actor, especially in Leo’s scenes with Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell), the head of the security firm. Roger betrayed Leo 25 years ago, and Leo’s been planning his revenge ever since. Esposito burns with enough fury to make it believable the guy has held this colossal grudge for such a long time. His intensity contrasts nicely with the loopier energy of the actors who play his crew. Paz Vega is all confidence and swagger as Ava, a lawyer who collects illegal guns. Peter Mark Kendall has goofy charm as Stan, a butcher with a knack for scams. Most notably, Rosaline Elbay and Jai Courtney have sizzling chemistry as Judy and Sam, an explosives expert and a safecracker who spice up their marriage with insults and loud, angry sex.

    The creative team places these performances in a highly polished structure. Director Russell Fine does great work in the episode that features the heist itself, clearly laying out each detail of the complex plan. In the episodes he writes, series creator Eric Garcia makes sure his characters don’t all sound alike, so that Ava’s slick, wordy pronouncements rub against Bob’s short, aggressive bursts of profanity. Their craftsmanship makes the show a painless, easy watch.

    And for those paying attention, there are rich pleasures in the margins. In one episode, Max Casella and Craig Walker play a pair of knuckleheaded thugs who have serious talks about building strong marriages when they aren’t knocking heads. They’re twice as memorable because they’re only around for a few scenes. Meanwhile, there are Easter eggs everywhere. Each installment is named after a color in a kaleidoscope, and when those colors turn up, it’s a sign that something’s about to go down. Even more subtly, the identity of a secretive killer is only revealed because they wear a t-shirt that appears in a different episode. Anyone who’s only half watching will miss this plot point altogether.

    Yet for all this razzle dazzle, the show’s signature gimmick is also its least interesting. Netflix is programming Kaleidoscope so that episodes appear in different orders for different viewers. With the exception of the last installment — the one with the heist — no one will see the story in the same way. Some will start with the episode that’s set 25 years in the past, and some will begin with the episode that takes place six months after the robbery goes down. For some, the second episode will be the one about the FBI agent trying to catch these people, and for others, it will be the one in which Leo first meets Stan in prison. This feels more like a marketing angle than a legitimate narrative strategy. Especially for binge watchers, it’s hard to imagine anyone will care if they learn about Leo’s family history two hours before some other random person in front of some other random screen. If this show catches on, it will be because people like its take on the crime caper, not because they’re excited by a publicity stunt.

    All eight episodes of Kaleidoscope are now streaming on Netflix. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Mark Blankenship has been writing about arts and culture for twenty years, with bylines in The New York Times, Variety, Vulture, Fortune, and many others. You can hear him on the pop music podcast Mark and Sarah Talk About Songs.

    TOPICS: Kaleidoscope, Netflix, Craig Walker, Eric Garcia, Giancarlo Esposito, Jai Courtney, Max Casella, Paz Vega, Peter Mark Kendall, Rosaline Elbay, Rufus Sewell