Halftime Leisure

Kaleidoscope tries a little bit of everything and struggles with it all

February 5, 2023

Design by Sabrina Shaffer

Content warning: This article references racist and xenophobic rhetoric. 

Author’s note: I watched the show in this order: “Yellow,” “Orange,” “Red,” “Pink,” “Green,” “Violet,” “Blue,” and “White.”

Netflix’s newest heist series can be watched in 5,040 different ways: there’s no designated order beyond the season finale. Rather than being numbered, each episode is named after a color, and Netflix gives each viewer a randomly generated order. While the premise sounds enticing, the audience must constantly take mental notes to keep track of everything happening. When this gimmick is combined with a plot that lacks substance and social commentary that fails to make any purposeful statement, Kaleidoscope falls spectacularly short of its hyped-up expectations.

Kaleidoscope presents itself as a standard heist show—vault, criminal mastermind, motley crew—and its central scheme appears elaborate at first glance. The vault is boasted as the world’s most secure, owned by tech millionaire Roger Salas (Rufus Sewell). Our mastermind is Salas’ former partner in crime, Leo Pap (Giancarlo Esposito). And of course, there’s every token heist character you would expect: Stan (Peter Mark Kendall) the smuggler, Bob (Jai Courtney) the safecracker, Judy (Rosaline Elbay) the chemist, RJ (Jordan Mendoza) the driver, and Ava (Paz Vega) the lawyer/weapons specialist/overall girlboss. The job falls apart when all the usual culprits—selfishness, betrayal, distrust, and the FBI—begin to kick in. 

So, how does Kaleidoscope claim to make this randomized viewing possible? There’s some exposition to kick off each episode, explaining where it stands in the overall timeline; however, it’s still not enough for each episode to truly stand alone. The opening voice-overs don’t fully introduce all characters, the time and place, or how far along the heist is—rather, they’re often very cryptic and ominous. While I could put the pieces together myself to follow along as events unfolded, the entire experience was disorienting. Rather than a creative breakthrough in screenwriting, Kaleidoscope feels much more like a chronological show out of order. Because Kaleidoscope’s story progression is so conventional, its unconventional viewing approach doesn’t fit the plot. If each episode portrayed the heist from each crew member’s perspective, perhaps, a random viewing order would be much more effective.

Overly embellished heist aside, Kaleidoscope attempts a lot of social commentary (and doesn’t execute any of it). Many difficult conflicts are introduced, but never suitably resolved. Agent Abbasi (Niousha Noor)—the FBI agent hot on the heist crew’s tail—struggles with a history of substance use throughout the show. While chasing the crew, she is fighting a custody battle and faces skepticism from coworkers. Despite this nuance, however, Abbasi’s character is reduced to her anger at the custody battle, rather than the themes of growth and healthy recovery. Later, during a heated negotiation after Abbasi orders the deportation of Ava’s nanny, Ava makes a pointed remark about the cruelty of ICE and American foreign policy—but it’s never once brought up again. 

Kaleidoscope beats around the bush on multiple social issues, and the failure to adequately engage topics of race is glaring. When Leo, a Black man, decides to put his foot down and end his criminal partnership with Roger, who is white, Leo begs of Roger: “What happens when they see a Black man breaking into a white man’s house?” But the answer to that question is never given, instead left to the audience to infer. After Leo eventually quits crime to run a business, his wife, Lily (Robinne Lee), a Black woman, is fired in a tirade of racially motivated insults and stereotypes when her white boss assumes her family has been stealing. To “get back” at Lily’s employer, Leo goes to rob the place. While the goal was to demonstrate Leo’s love for his wife, he does exactly what his wife was wrongly accused of. By making this a pivotal part of Leo’s narrative arc, the show fails to reckon with its own hypocrisy. It carries a condescending undertone, painting a picture of the victim making the wrong choice in response to injustice, as if what befalls his family is Leo’s fault for not “taking the higher road.” Even if this scenario was written with good intentions, the lack of clarity regarding what statement Leo’s actions are supposed to convey renders any potential messaging entirely lost. 

Kaleidoscope broaches a lot of social justice movements, but never explicitly supports them. None of these incredibly complex and important issues are given meaningful exploration. If Kaleidoscope wants to level powerful critiques, it needs to do more than mention a whole range of class and identity struggles in a handful of throwaway lines. If a problem is mentioned, a resolution, a healthy way to cope, or at least a proper explanation for why should be given. Introducing these topics without giving them substantive commentary can be counterproductive—it can contribute to the desensitization of audiences to heavy topics by treating them as normal and not needing further elaboration.

It’s also worth noting that episode randomization is an accidental hindrance to the show’s ability to create comprehensive personal narratives. Since viewers do not experience the same timeline, it’s impossible to build continuous characterization or devote enough time to any individual backstory. The only emotional plot point that has a relatively consistent presence throughout the series is Leo’s complicated relationship with his daughter, Hannah Kim (Tati Gabrielle): The two live separately, Hannah works for Roger, and Hannah blames Leo for her mother’s death. She ends up playing the wild card—acting out against Leo and turning the operation on its head—yet it’s hard to pinpoint a distinct moment when Hannah finally decides to “turn.” Her conversations with Leo all carry the same negative undertones, but there’s no continuous emotional arc. While the finale definitely comes as a surprising twist, it comes out of nowhere, and not in a good way. As a result, viewers lose the satisfaction of remembering all the little bits and pieces of past episodes and having that “aha!” moment when they put it all together.

Kaleidoscope tries hard to be unlike other shows, but it’s not all that different. In the process of trying to be so experimental, it loses the heart of what makes any heist show good: an action-packed, immaculately executed heist. The best way to watch it is probably just chronologically—that way, you’ll at least save yourself from the headache of constant time skips.

Eileen Chen
Eileen is the Halftime Leisure Editor and a sophomore in the College studying political economy. She likes dirty chai lattes, pretty flowers, and making playlists for every minor inconvenience.

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