Netflix's Kaleidoscope Is a Fun but Overly Familiar Heist Caper

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Netflix's <i>Kaleidoscope</i> Is a Fun but Overly Familiar Heist Caper

How’s your appetite for fun these days, here on the brink of apocalypse? I ask this not to be glib, but because I’ve been analyzing my own viewing habits lately, wondering how the state of the big ugly world has influenced what I want to spend my free time consuming. My initial thought, perhaps a little facile, is that people would want to “escape” the things we might find grim about the broader instability of our post-pandemic world. It makes a simple kind of sense—let art shield us from armageddon. But the truth, at least for me, is that my favorite shows of the year have been pretty damn serious.

This is totally anecdotal, and my taste is by no means definitive nor my viewing habits comprehensive, but the two shows in 2022 that I considered “great” were The Bear and Andor—the former a treatise on family pain, the latter nominally a Star Wars series, but actually so far removed from the temperament and writing of most of that franchise that it might as well have been a John LeCarre adaptation. The year before, it was Succession and Station Eleven, one a cynical, redemption-free send-up of our worst people, the other an agonizing look at love and community after the world ends. The only point I’m making here is that I was clearly not on the lookout for frivolity; I wanted the dark and dirty stuff, either in spite of or because of the “real” world.

And if you’ll let me beat this to death, the time we most associate with escapist film is the 1980s, when New Hollywood succumbed to the franchise model led by Jaws and Star Wars, and the ‘80s, despite the limping end of the Cold War, were some of the most financially stable times for the American middle class. Maybe we just want to see our world reflected thematically; maybe nobody, ever, wants to escape.

Which leads us to Kaleidoscope, Netflix’s new heist show that is a hell of a lot like the cross-cultural phenomenon Money Heist, the ultimately hollow but hugely successful Spanish product that did so well for Netflix. You get the feeling that Kaleidoscope was made because of Money Heist, and—who knows?—maybe it will be just as successful. I found it “fun,” and I mean that both in the sincere and cutting form of the word. Everyone in the cast is good, starting with Giancarlo Esposito as Leo Pap, the brains behind the operation, and Jai Courtney as the Aussie safecracker Bob deserves special mention for his crass alpha male performance, the funniest part of the whole show.

The show’s big gimmick is that everyone watching will get a different episode order (within the possible permutations) other than the finale. But in general, the plot is absolutely everything you’d expect—the forming of a crew of misfits, the intro to the bad guy with the impenetrable vault, a surprising relationship that makes it all possible, the voiceovers set to spunky music and flash cuts explaining all the obstacles to the job, and even a “job before the job” snatching diamonds from the New York City streets. You will not be overtly bored watching this show, and depending on your episode order it can feel like a Tarantino thing as it skips around in time; the first episode for me was six weeks before the heist, the next was seven years before, and so I got to see what happened after the heist before I saw the heist itself.

A Peruvian critic once wrote of Money Heist that it “pretends to be the most intelligent boy in class when, in fact, it is only the cleverest.” That is precisely what’s happening here; it’s a cliche executed quite well. If it left me a little cold, and if “having fun” isn’t really what I want from TV at the moment, you can hardly blame that on Kaleidoscope. Accordingly, though, the show’s worst moments are when it tries to veer into prestige drama territory. The “surprising relationship” discussed above, which I won’t spoil, is a great big emotional dud, and the show’s creep—Roger Salas, played well by Rufus Sewell, who very much looks the part with that sort of alpha Chris Cuomo energy—is often given painfully ominous and obvious lines like “at the end of the day, it all comes down to you versus the people who want what you have. And the only thing matters is, can you manipulate them better than they manipulate you?” This kind of thing might have seemed shocking and new when Michael Douglas was saying it on Wall Street, but we’re so familiar with greedy titans by now that the attempt at evil gravitas is a whiff.

Here’s what I’ll say about Kaleidoscope—if you’re sick, as I am right now, and plan to spend many hours in bed, as I do, it’s a good thoughtless diversion for when your brain and body are too fogged to play online chess and TikTok’s charms have grown repetitive. If you have better things to do, do those better things, but if you’ve got the time and you like the genre, why not? It’s not saying anything new—it’s not even trying to say anything new—but there are worse things than the warm comforts of TV deja vu. That seems to be Netflix’s wheelhouse right now (leave the big swings to Apple TV+), and here they’ve done their jobs with the utmost competence.

Kaleidoscope premieres Sunday, January 1st on Netflix — and you can watch the episodes in any order you choose (other than the finale).

Shane Ryan is a writer and editor. You can find more of his writing and podcasting at Apocalypse Sports, and follow him on Twitter here .

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