The new series “Kaleidoscope,” premiering on Jan. 1, is intended to be viewed in any order, with its first seven episodes possible to scramble and remix however the viewer chooses ahead of a final installment. In this way, it seems to suggest itself in form as much as premiere date as ideal for a New Year’s Day binge. A perhaps gently hungover viewer may be coddled by the knowledge that viewing order doesn’t matter, and, for that matter, that pertinent information will be repeated as needed to make points clear.
“Kaleidoscope” has an interesting enough story at its center — the whirring of its random-episode design overlays a story of a daring heist undertaken as a sort of revenge by a master criminal (Giancarlo Esposito) and his crack team. The issue with “Kaleidoscope,” though, is that its design is less an ingenious way of moving storytelling forward than the sort of thing a creator, or a streamer, does because it can. I suppose it’s novel enough to have a bunch of episodes available to watch in random order (although it’s not brand-new: The former CBS All Access launched in 2020 a series, “Interrogation,” built in a similar way). But it reminded me, a bit, of the George Perec novel translated into English as “A Void,” one that in French and English both is written without using the letter “E.” It’s a clever stunt, but do readers today remember the story, or simply the fact of its constraints?
Here, those constraints mean that every episode must be legible to viewers who are coming in cold: It could be their first one. (For similar reasons, it feels as though just about everything about this show could be construed as a spoiler — suffice it to say that Esposito’s character is on a mission not merely to win back money but affection, and to harm an enemy in the process.) And I found myself yearning for the simplicity of a classically built TV pilot when first watching “Red,” an episode that takes place the morning after the heist. The show’s attempts to convey the texture of these characters’ relationships in quick ways that wouldn’t jar viewers who’d already been spending time with them didn’t consistently land, and the stakes seemed at once huge — the players were in the midst of a web of crime and confusing loyalties — and nonexistent. Hoping for some backstory, my next episode was “Violet,” which Netflix’s episode descriptions indicated was set 24 years before the heist; here, I stumbled on what may be the reason for all the sizzle and oddity of Netflix’s presentation of “Kaleidoscope.” The core product just isn’t very good.
In this episode, and in others I watched as the ground beneath my feet grew firmer and I came to understand the story, coincidence reigned, dialogue was stilted and awkward, and settings were low-budget and diffidently filmed. (A scene of destructive fire in “Kaleidoscope” looked just this side of how a daytime soap might have portrayed it — the point came across, but I expect a bit more from a marquee Netflix project.) As with “Bandersnatch,” Netflix’s interactive “Black Mirror” episode, and one of the weaker entrants in that show’s canon, the device came to seem like a way to make an underbaked show worth discussing. I wouldn’t turn people away from “Kaleidoscope” — if you think choosing your own path through its story sounds rewarding, you’ll likely find at least a little pleasure in seeing some elements only alluded to earlier in your viewing deploy later, and seeing how some flatly stated facts are later hinted at. But I’d warn that seeing how it all fits together is vastly more fun and engaging than the actual story here.
“Kaleidoscope” premieres Sunday, January 1 on Netflix.