Kaleidoscope Redefines the Heist Genre

The new series "Kaleidoscope" does the impossible and breaks out of the tired stereotypes of the heist genre.

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There are few genres more formulaic than the heist genre. The story begins with a mastermind thief picking a target, usually some vault or priceless painting. Then, he puts together a group of other skilled crooks, often a con artist, a hacker, a safe cracker, and a driver. Afterward, there’s some montage of the team preparing for the event. Once they’re ready to go, the heist takes place but is met with some twist or betrayal.

Finally, the team drives off into the sunset with their riches while jazzy go-go music plays in the background—as Baby Driver demonstrated, the music component is actually an important element to maintain an upbeat, ironic tone. 

While often fun and watchable, the problem with the heist genre is its glamorization of crime and its predictability, to say nothing of the lack of realism. The team is always composed of charming rogues who steal from some nefarious rich person while somehow avoiding violence at all costs. There are conveniently no victims—or at least none that are visible—and any questions of morality are cast to the wind. And one can be certain that there’s not even a whisper of religion, except as a gag. 

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After a long slew of Ocean’s Eleven sequels and a number of derivatives, it’s difficult to break through these conventions of the heist genre. However, to its great credit, Netflix’s new series Kaleidoscope does the impossible and dares to go in a different direction. It presents the criminals as the flawed, crude people they are, questions their motives, and sheds light on the messiness of breaking into an elaborately secure vault. Despite having a few faults in its execution, the series nonetheless delivers a thoughtful, satisfying experience overall.

Much of the series’ virtues are the result of the randomized non-linear episode sequence. For each viewer, the order of the episodes, which are labeled with colors, are arranged differently before they get to the finale, “White.” While some people may consider this a gimmick, it makes a significant impact on the story and gives it more depth. Viewers are forced to consider multiple viewpoints and put together the many pieces into a coherent narrative with more developed characters. As the title would indicate, each episode color comes together in a pattern that holds together in a unique way for each person watching.

Even though this sounds confusing, it’s actually quite brilliant. The scrambling of episodes causes viewers to take a more critical eye to what’s happening in each scene and, more importantly, why it’s happening. While most characters in a heist movie serve as plot devices with maybe one or two characters actually having development, everyone in the cast of Kaleidoscope has their own character arc.

Consequently, the audience not only sees the good sides of these characters but also their bad sides. Sure, they’ll shine in their specialties, but there’s no question that nearly all of these people are selfish, some beyond any point of redemption. Some are seeking riches, some revenge, some status, and some are just angry and stubborn. Considering their defects, it’s a minor miracle they make it as far as they do.

Even if such defects will often make the characters annoying—the meat-headed Australian safecracker, Bob, has to be the biggest offender—they also make them relatable. These are desperate people who aren’t trustworthy. Many of them are shortsighted, seeing only the payoff, and neglect the effect of their lifestyle on their consciences and relationships. 

This becomes evident with the elderly main character, Leo Pap, as he naively seeks to do “one last job” that will settle all his scores and bring his life to a comfortable conclusion. Instead, he finds himself suffering with Parkinson’s, more or less estranged from his daughter, and lost in a moral quandary about his supposed desire for revenge. It’s not exactly clear whether he deserves to succeed in his objectives, or if pulling off the job will really give him what he wants. Whatever the case, the show’s creator, Eric Garcia, has no intention of glamorizing him as a hero; rather, he’s a sick old man who clearly needs to move on with his life. 

Moreover, Garcia also has no desire to whitewash the crimes committed. By the time that everything is said and done, there is abundant collateral damage and more than a few victims. And, as is the case with other heist stories, one always wonders why these criminals couldn’t simply apply their commitment, professionalism, and abundant skills to things that aren’t illegal. This seems to be the case for the show’s antagonist, Roger Salas, who runs a private security business; but his past catches up with him, too—ironically, because of this, it’s hard not to sympathize with his character at least a little bit. 

Unfortunately, the show is not without its drawbacks, mainly in its writing and some of the acting. There are more than a few plot holes and weird coincidences, and the dialogue is clumsy. There are also scenes meant to treat larger themes like racism, classism, or sexism that are cringingly clunky and go nowhere. And while the leads, Giancarlo Esposito and Rufus Sewell, carry the show admirably, they’re dragged down by some of the younger, less talented actors who are mainly there to be diverse—this is a Netflix production after all. 

Despite these problems, the show is still quite watchable and even thought-provoking. Although not an instant classic, it does introduce some new ideas and techniques that effectively revive a genre that was growing stale. It’s also surprisingly moral in its overall message: crime doesn’t pay, relationships are the most important thing in life, and revenge is ultimately futile. Sometimes it’s nice to rise above these themes and just see the beautiful people get away with grand larceny without a care in the world; but at other times, it’s nice to see them get their just deserts and have reality reassert itself.

[Image Credit: Netflix]


  • Auguste Meyrat

    Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher and department chair in north Texas. He has a BA in Arts and Humanities from University of Texas at Dallas and an MA in Humanities from the University of Dallas.

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