'StartUp': TV Review
Martin Freeman and Adam Brody are squandered in Crackle's new financial thriller.
For writers, the lure of depicting advancing technology is like the Sirens' song. You want to be the coolest, most forward-looking scribe on your block, causing everybody in the present to rave about how far ahead of the curve you are, imagining audiences from the future being dazzled by your prescience. You don't want to be the 75th CBS procedural featuring a hacker who knows how to find things on the dark web.
Mostly, you don't want to be The Net. You don't want to be that forgettable, average action thriller that only lives on 21 years later because of its laughable (albeit not wholly unrealistic) paranoia about the World Wide Web.
If the Crackle drama StartUp is remembered for anything in 21 years, and chances are better than not that it won't even have that longevity, it will be as The Net of cryptocurrency. An interesting setup, a fresh backdrop and a strong cast will only go so far when you have to explain and re-explain your premise to the point where it goes from intriguing to laughable.
Otmara Marrero plays Izzy Morales, a plucky young programmer who can't get mainstream investment support in GenCoin, her carefully planned replacement for traditional currency. Her dream becomes first a reality and then a nightmare when funding comes from Nick (Adam Brody), an altruistic young banker trying to distance himself from his father's financial improprieties, and Ronald (Edi Gathegi), a family man looking for an escape from his life in a Haitian gang. The trio runs afoul of Phil Rask (Martin Freeman), an FBI agent who has spent too long working Miami's shady underbelly to remain clean himself.
If you asked me to explain cryptocurrency, I'd probably say, "You know, like bitcoin," which wouldn't necessarily tell you anything interesting, but would at least give us a common language, and maybe we could move forward on faith from there. Moving on is absolutely essential if your goal is to do a show about cryptocurrency that's meant as a thriller more than as a procedural drama about financial systems.
The way I see it, there are two basic approaches to defining cryptocurrency that could have worked in StartUp: Say as little as possible, treat it like a MacGuffin. Or find a colorful, whimsical way to explain it to the audience like children as an initial concept — the Mr. DNA sequence from Jurassic Park, basically — and hope that sticks. Either way, it becomes dramatically unacceptable to have a show that, through five episodes made available to critics, hasn't figured out how to not have characters give boring breakdowns of the nature of cryptocurrency in every episode. Izzy and Nick and Ronald pitch GenCoin to dead-eyed investors and, I'm guessing, eyes-glazed viewers as the future of money so many times that it becomes the pecuniary equivalent of Dippin' Dots, which still is waiting to become the "Ice Cream of the Future" 29 years after its invention.
It's a bit surprising that StartUp, given a title of such crushing genericness it feels almost intended to get lost in the Google churn, was created by and frequently directed by Ben Ketai, who previously brought Crackle the Milo Ventimiglia series Chosen. Not to say that Chosen was any great innovative series, but it was a show with a very clear sense of how to get directly to the point and trim out any expositional flab. Perhaps unaccustomed to working with flab, Ketai can't figure out how to make action-free things like character development, backstory and setting flow within the storytelling, and even the action that felt like it came so naturally to Chosen doesn't flow here. By the fourth and fifth episodes, the only way StartUp can drum up stakes is with a fourth or fifth iteration of "We had funding, but now we lost it!" drama, woman-in-peril exploitation and characters shrieking to be heard over the thudding soundtrack. The act of violence that ends that fifth episode probably will end my viewing of StartUp. [The standards at Crackle are such that implied and visualized torture is totally kosher, but nipples are off-limits in sex scenes, while certain other graphic sexual behaviors are fine, and there are no language restrictions at all.]
There are fleeting moments that suggest a better version of the series. There's a scene in which Freeman's character takes his new, poorly written partner up onto a Miami rooftop and points around the city. He shows her all of the different neighborhoods and explains different waves of immigrant arrival and different tiers of residential wealth and ties it together with local property tax laws to explain why Miami is such a great setting for a story merging gangland crime and financial malfeasance, and for five minutes, I believed him. The rest of the series doesn't do nearly as well with distinguishing between Dominican, Haitian and Cuban factions, showing how new and old money interact or really explaining how anything that's happening relates to different law-enforcement groups. Might shooting on the ground in Miami, rather than in tax-friendlier Puerto Rico, have made a difference in enhancing the city's ability to be a main character in StartUp? Probably.
The main human characters aren't there either, but at least the show can capitalize off the skills of the leading actors, who were attracted a bit by the opportunity to play against type and a bit by an island work-vacation. Freeman, relishing a character just to the side of wicked, has a fun swagger and an unpredictable glint in his eye, but part of why Phil is unpredictable as a character is because his motivations are either muddled or being kept secret for reasons of suspense or confusion. Brody, who really shouldn't be having this much trouble transitioning to full-on adult roles, is at his best when he can bring humor into Nick's stuttering confusion, but he has too many scenes with underwritten love interest Taylor (Ashley Grace). I like how Gathegi balanced menace and budding intellect, and I was OK with relative newcomer Marrero until the heightened emotions of the later episodes became too much.
"Unregulated, untaxed, incorruptible," cryptocurrency may be the future of money. And, supported by Sony and able to lure reasonably large names like Freeman and Dennis Quaid, Crackle may be the future of streaming TV. Like last fall's Quaid auction drama The Art of More, though, StartUp is a series that wants to take viewers to a world we haven't seen on the small screen, but fails in the attempts to show us why the world is different rather than just talking about it. This future is not now.
Cast: Martin Freeman, Adam Brody, Edi Gathegi, Otmara Marrero
Creator: Ben Ketai