What links Netflix’s Kaleidoscope to Jonathan Coe and Bryan Cranston?

A chain of connections that starts and finishes with the random-order eight-part crime thriller

Go your own way

Kaleidoscope (from left to right): Paz Vega as Ava Mercer, Giancarlo Esposito as Leo Pap, Jai Courtney as Bob Goodwin, Peter Mark Kendall as Stan Loomis
Kaleidoscope’s episodes can be watched in any order … Photograph: Netflix

The 1980s was the heyday for “choose your own adventure” children’s books, and variations on the concept continue to promise immersive new storytelling futures: in Netflix’s new series Kaleidoscope – about a plot to steal $70bn worth of bonds – you don’t choose your own adventure, but it is so designed that its eight episodes can be watched in any order, while still making narrative sense. Can an interesting gimmick make for good storytelling? Let the adventure begin!

A series of unfortunate events

BS Johnson publicity photo for The Unfortunates taken in 1968
… like BS Johnson’s The Unfortunates, which specified only the first and last chapters … Photograph: Macmillan

The English avant-gardist BS Johnson’s 1969 book The Unfortunates was published as a box of 27 loose sections, with only the first and last chapter specified, and the rest to be chosen at random. “The number of variables,” it was estimated, “offers the reader a grand total of – deep breath – 15,511,210,043,330,985,984,000,000 ways to read it.” Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Netflix.

Something Wilder

Billy Wilder
… Jonathan Coe wrote a book about Johnson and one about Billy Wilder’s attempts to make Fedora … Photograph: Alamy

In 2004, Jonathan Coe published Like a Fiery Elephant, his award-winning biography of BS Johnson. Better known as a novelist with a taste for postmodern flourishes, Coe’s 2020 book Mr Wilder & Me was a fictional imagining of Billy Wilder’s attempts to make his penultimate film, Fedora, which was released in 1978.

Golden years

Bryan Cranston
… starring William Holden, who was also in Network, the play of which starred Bryan Cranston … Photograph: Getty Images

Fedora starred William Holden, who also featured in Wilder classic Sunset Boulevard. Another late-career role for Holden was as a wizened news executive in the seminal media satire Network. In 2017, Network was revived as a play at the National Theatre, with Bryan Cranston taking on the role of the “mad as hell” news anchor, originally played by Peter Finch.

Bringing it all back home

Giancarlo Esposito in Breaking Bad
… AKA Walter White in Breaking Bad, which featured Giancarlo Esposito, who is also in Kaleidoscope … Photograph: Alamy

Bryan Cranston will always be remembered as Walter White in Breaking Bad, where he appeared alongside Giancarlo Esposito’s drug kingpin Gus Fring. And now Esposito gets embroiled in heist drama Kaleidoscope, with a cast including Paz Vega, Rufus Sewell and Tati Gabrielle – though the order in which they appear is up to you.

Breaking Bad’s Los Pollos Hermanos chicken shop sign

Pairing notes

Watch Steven Soderbergh’s 2017 murder mystery TV series Mosaic, starring Sharon Stone, began life as a mobile app where you could jump between different perspectives to follow the story.

Eat Gus Fring also owned Los Pollos Hermanos restaurant, whose fried chicken has spawned numerous imitations. Finger-licking bad.


Larry Ryan

The GuardianTramp

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