Kaleidoscope’s pointless ‘watch in any order’ gimmick is a desperate attempt to stay fresh

Netflix’s new heist series offers viewers a unique proposition: eight episodes that can be watched in whichever order they so choose. Some might call it ‘innovation’ – but it’s no way to tell a story, writes Louis Chilton

Friday 06 January 2023 15:56 GMT
A man out of time: Giancarlo Esposito in Netflix’s non-linear new series ‘Kaleidoscope'
A man out of time: Giancarlo Esposito in Netflix’s non-linear new series ‘Kaleidoscope' (Netflix)

Here’s a little secret about this article: you can read it in any order you see fit. Shuffle around the paragraphs. Read it back to front. Skip to the second half and then go back and read the introduction. It’ll make sense enough, more or less. But why exactly anyone would want to do this is another matter – these words are arranged in this order for a reason. Mixing them up would be pointless. Maybe someone should tell this to Netflix, or the creators of their latest hit series, Kaleidoscope.

The eight-part drama – released on Netflix last week, and which sat for days atop the Top 10 most-watched TV chart – tells the story of Leo Pap (Giancarlo Esposito), an expert thief who is planning the heist of a lifetime. Kaleidoscope flashes through different points in time, with some episodes taking place years before the crime was committed, others in its aftermath. The gimmick is that none of the episodes are intended to be watched in any particular order. Rather than being given episode numbers, the eight chapters are assigned colours (Yellow, Green, Blue, Orange, Violet, Red, Pink, and White). Viewers can then spin this televisual colour wheel in whichever direction they wish: the only recommendation is to probably leave White – the finale, with a bombshell plot development – until last. According to better mathematicians than myself, that makes for a possible 40,000 different combinations of episodes.

Naturally, Kaleidoscope’s non-linear structure has led to scores of viewers asking the same question: which order is best? Fans have put forward their own suggestions, while Netflix posited a few prospective combinations – spuriously advertised to emulate the stylings of Quentin Tarantino, Orange is the New Black, and classic murder mystery fiction respectively. Of course, it doesn’t really do this at all. The ways in which Tarantino plays with narrative structure in films like Reservoir Dogs, Pulp Fiction, or Jackie Brown, is rigorously thought through. The pacing of every film relies on each flashback arriving in a particular place. This is how filmmaking works: structure is one of the most basic and fundamental tools a storyteller has at their disposal. To simply hand viewers a bucket of 40,000 possibilities and ask them to pick one at random flies in the face not just of storytelling convention, but the very essence of creative authorship.

Kaleidoscope is not the first time Netflix has attempted structural gimmicks with its programming. Viewers may remember the 2019 series Love, Death + Robots, which listed its episodes in different orders for different users. (The streaming service was in fact accused of algorithmically basing these orders on users’ sexual orientation – though Netflix denied this, and stated that the orderings were completely random.) It’s also produced a few “interactive films”, such as the 2018 Black Mirror special Bandersnatch, which allowed viewers to customise their experience by making a plethora of binary plot decisions on behalf of the protagonist. Never mind that Bandersnatch – at least as I experienced it – was shoddily written and only semi-coherently pieced together.

Netflix has, since its inception as a content producer, prided itself on upending conventions around TV viewing. The given explanation for its “content dump” model – releasing whole seasons of TV at once – was always sold as a means of giving viewers the freedom to consume TV how they wanted. If you want to binge, we’re not going to stop you. But of course, this has always been slightly misleading. The reality is that Netflix has grown extremely adroit at nudging viewers towards certain programmes, certain films. The reason that Netflix’s newest releases regularly rise to the top of its Most Watched lists cannot be that they simply manage to strike gold time and again. (Shows like Emily in Paris are more akin to striking a sewage pipe.) The interface is designed to subtly (or not so subtly) dictate what viewers watch, even as Netflix professes to be some kind of subversive, liberating force. Unavoidably large videos promoting the flavour-of-the-week releases hit your face as soon as you open the Netflix app. Shows are seeded generously into ever-changing lists of recommended categories. The prominently displayed Top 10 charts double up as handy adverts, ballyhooing a programme’s success at the earliest possible opportunity. Netflix is no liberator – just an unprecedentedly slick salesperson.

What are people really gaining from being able to customise their watch-throughs of Kaleidoscope? They are getting the illusion of choice, perhaps. The novelty of innovation. But they’re also getting an imperfectly paced story, one that creaks from the logistical compromises necessary to accommodate such a novelty. I wonder, too, why the title was chosen. To most people, kaleidoscopes are simply cheap, handheld trinkets that children use and grow rapidly bored with after a matter of minutes. A flashy gimmick with no lasting value. Maybe it’s the perfect title after all.

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