TV Review: This ‘StartUp’ Doesn’t Quite Have the ROI


{All images courtesy the StartUp Twitter account.}

StartUp, season 1. Series created by Ben Ketai. Written by Josh Corbin, Ben Ketai, Sharon Lennon, Scott Gold, Ben Dubash, and Paul Leyden. Directed by Ben Ketai and Luis Prieto. Ten episodes released on September 6, 2016.

Not sure if this is a cast photo or the cover of the new hipster-boy band album.
Not sure if this is a cast photo or the cover of the new hipster-boy band album.

I have worked in two startups in Los Angeles since moving here in 2013. One was for an app, and the other worked with YouTube content creators. So, I’d like to think that I have a basic idea of how the startup world works and the struggles within.

I’m also a bit of a tech nerd – while I don’t completely fall into it, I’m at least familiar with BitCoin, and how computer security works. But I also know how rarely Hollywood gets anything truly accurate. Part of it is due to the Coconut Effect, and with this specifically, Hollywood Hacking. While I am able to use suspension of disbelief, there is also only so much I can handle before it breaks.

So, it was with a bit of trepidation that I started to watch Crackle’s new series, StartUp. The 10 episode first season follows three individuals as they get embroiled in the world of creating a startup in the crooked world of Miami, Fl. Head’s up – as this is a review of the full first season, there are some minor spoilers below.

We have Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero), the hacker with the idea – GenCoin, a new type of digital currency that’s somehow different (more secure, according to her spiel) to BitCoin. We have Nick Talman (Adam Brody), the first one to show Izzy some actual interest in the idea, a small business loan financer wanting to do more with his life than go into business with his girlfriend’s father. And then we have Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi), a member of one of the many gangs in Miami who gets involved because Nick’s dad (currently on the run due to embezzlement) borrowed money from him.

We also see the story of FBI Agent Phil Rask – which, as soon as I tell you he’s played by Martin Freeman, anyone who knows me knows why I decided to give this show a chance. Rask is also investigating Nick’s dad, and also knows Ronald’s gang from various escapades. He’s tired of seeing all the corruption going on around him, and decides to try taking a piece of the action himself.

Each episode is titled with terminology well-known in the startup community (everything from “Proof of Concept” to “Hostile Takeover”), and is a disheartening look at how hard it is to do something good in a crooked world.

Just a regular start up problem, having a gang member being a founding member.
Just a regular startup problem, having a gang member being a founding member.

The first episode, “Seed Money”, starts off with a bang, and I actually found it a bit gratuitous in its sex and violence. Note: I wasn’t offended by it – I’ve seen far worse. But I did find it overdone, like series creator Ben Ketai was desperate to show his series was ‘adult’, and so we are introduced to each of those four characters with an overly graphic sex scene. It tries too hard, and goes over the top as a result.

The characters, for the most part, are pretty fleshed out. I hesitate to use the word ‘heroes’ to describe them, as this show follows the trend of having everyone be a bit of a bastard. Izzy is pretty much doing anything she can to get GenCoin started, and thinks it will change the world. Nick is desperate to save the world, no doubt partially fueled by his father’s nefarious dealings. Ronald’s got a wife and kid, and is trying to get out before his son gets recruited into his world. And Rask’s marriage is on the rocks, his career stagnant, and he’s deep in debt himself. They are all stuck in their respective worlds, and – depressingly – only make things worse by trying to change it for the better.

Freeman obviously enjoyed being a bit of a BAMF, and his scene from the first episode remains one of my favorite pieces of his acting. He’s so calm and supposedly friendly, all the while with an underlying steel core that subtly implies the threat he’s really communicating. And he maintains it for a couple of episodes. Unfortunately, it kind of falls apart when the plot demands it and he becomes more of a patsy as the series progresses.

Freeman, being a smart ass. And a BAMF. A SMBAMF?
Freeman, being a smart ass. And a BAMF. A SMBAMF?

It’s actually Ronald I end up sympathizing with the most. Gathegi’s portrayal, while fairly tropey at first, turns into a heart-wrenching story of a man truly wanting a better life for the next generation. While Izzy and Nick end up finding solace in each other and have – albeit combative – some family structure to fall back on, Ronald IS the family structure in his situation. As I noted above, the first season ends on the depressing note that they are all actually worse off than they were at the beginning, and it is Ronald’s story that is the worst for me.

Had it not been for Freeman’s involvement, I probably wouldn’t have even heard of this show, let alone given it a shot. It’s not something that would normally land on my radar. And while I did chuckle a bit at the overly dramatic way that startups apparently work in Miami, I ended up being drawn into the world. It’s fairly predictable in its attempt to clone other ‘underground crime deal’ type shows, and tries too hard to be ‘edgy’, but still is somewhat engaging. I found myself rooting for our three leads. I can only hope the second season (if there is one) gets them a chance to win for once.

You can view the entire 10-episode season on Crackle’s website (if you’re in the USA).