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Kaleidoscope, Netflix and the Story of Non-Linear Storytelling

This New Year, the ones who did not spend the first day of the year in hangover and fatigue had an intriguing gift in their binge-watching lists. Being one of the pioneers for innovative formats in content consumption on OTT, Netflix came out with the series Kaleidoscope. With an eight episode series about an ensemble cast robbing a vault, the producers at Netflix exactly knew what the audience wants after the fame and success of Money Heist and the countless renditions of the Ocean’s movies. But what really upped the anticipation of many viewers was the format with which Kaleidoscope is being presented.


The eight part show can be watched in any order the viewer wishes leading to thousands of combinations that will change the way the whole story is perceived. Now this form of non-linear storytelling is not so new for cinema and television, but giving the choice of the narrative with which content is consumed to the user is the added incentive.


Non-linear storytelling is one of the many unconventional ways in telling a story that has been used by many famous filmmakers to add more mystery and creativity in their craft. One of the most quintessential examples of people who employed this method in cinema is Quentin Tarantino, famously in Reservoir Dogs and the iconic cult classic film Pulp Fiction. The film albeit doing poorly in the box office when it released at the same time along with the likes of Forrest Gump and The Shawshank Redemption has now been acknowledged by many in the world of cinema for many reasons, garnering fame for its witty dialogues, ‘aesthetisation of violence’ and for Samuel Jackson’s iconic monologue which probably any cinephile today knows by heart. But Tarantino’s use of a non-linear narrative in the film is something that people still go back to and hold in high regard. Film enthusiasts have coined the term ‘Tarantino Effect’ to refer to a shift from the regular, chronological storytelling.


Going back even earlier, the Indian epic mythology Mahabharata in some form has used the non-linear narrative, using flashbacks and introspections weaved into the story. Authors like Michael Moorcock and many comic book storytellers were also successful in creating iconic non-linear stories that have been noted for exploring the form in very many ways.


What makes the technique effective and fascinating is in its ability to keep the audience gripped to the narrative till the very end of a book or a film. Let us go back a bit more in storytelling history. Joseph Campbell theorised ‘The Hero’s Journey’ as an archetype that is a template for telling a story. It forms a narrative structure that describes the different phases in a protagonist’s story, the challenges and adversaries they face and how the conflict gets resolved. Countless stories in fiction that we have all been hearing, reading and watching till today can be put in this archetype.


In non-linear storytelling, these phases in the hero’s journey do not follow a chronological order, with the different stages strung together in a sequence that the writer wants you to see the story in. A particular stage may not seem coherent to its previous one and a viewer may have to wait right till the end for the whole story to make sense to them. Another device in narratology, called ‘Retroactive Continuity’ now known as ‘retcon’ is a form of narrative where a certain event in a new part of a story makes the viewer see the whole story in an entirely different light. This is most common with prequels and sequels and can be most famously associated in pop culture with the second Star Wars film. Now being safe to spoil, Luke finding out that Darth Vader is actually his father drove the Star Wars fanbase crazy and it is said that the creator George Lucas may not have even planned this when the first film came out. Star Wars went on to make seven more films after that including three full-fledged prequels based on this one detail in Empire Strikes Back.


When this came to television, it became an entirely new ball game with each episode seemingly detached from the previous one, keeping the audience guessing right up till the end before the collective eureka. Jonathan Nolan and Lisa Joy’s Westworld did this masterfully, holding the intrigue for almost two long seasons, as the show continues to develop with possibly even more retcon in the coming episodes.


What Kaleidoscope does to up the game even more is giving the choice to the audience. Netflix has done this before when it comes to different forms of consumption in the form of the interactive Black Mirror Bandersnatch episode or a Man vs Wild version where the audience gets to click on choices leading to multiple outcomes as the story progresses. While Westworld was very non-linear and thoughtfully written, the writers still gave us an order in which the show has to be watched, or in other words, had narrative control. With the eight episodes in the new show titled as different colours in a kaleidoscope, the viewer jumps into different stages of the story at their will. It is interesting to wonder how the writers manage to justify the continuity in the story. Halfway through the show, each episode seems to have a coherent narrative of its own with the little tone of mystery about the overall plot. Every episode starts understandably with a narrative monologue of the protagonist in a retrospective tone in order to establish the stories and characters so that any episode could be viewed like a pilot. But one cannot say if it will justify the whole plot and could the characterisation be good enough if there’s no order in which it can be watched. Questions arise whether the combination of episodes that someone chooses would actually throw a different shade while justifying the whole plot. It is indeed an ambitious attempt and indeed will be pioneering a new form of storytelling if it is successful.


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Tags: Netflix Pulp Fiction Tarantino Joseph Campbell Non-Linear Storytelling Naratology Kaleidoscope Westworld



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