Crackle’s reputation as a provider of original content has largely been built on Jerry Seinfeld, whose Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee has provided the streaming service with the media attention — and this year, the Emmy nomination for Outstanding Variety Talk Series — that its other shows have not been able to match. Its latest dramatic offering, StartUp, which starts streaming on Crackle today, initially sounded like the scripted series that, perhaps, could finally push the network closer to Netflix territory.
Its ensemble cast — which includes Adam Brody (also a producer), Edi Gathegi (The Blacklist), and newcomer Otmara Marrero — is headlined by Martin Freeman, star of prestige TV productions such as Sherlock and Fargo, while its premise, which focuses on the genesis of a Miami digital-currency company funded with dirty money, contains whiffs of Bloodline, Mr. Robot, and a much rougher, less funny Silicon Valley. As a basic pitch, this sounds potentially promising.
But while watching the first handful of its ten episodes, it doesn’t take long to realize that, despite strong work by its actors, StartUp is just another exploration of underground crime and shady dealings that we’ve seen a thousand times before on film and television. I was determined to review this series without using the word gritty, but then I was forced to surrender to the fact that it’s simply not possible. As created by Ben Ketai, also behind the 2013 Crackle series Chosen, StartUp is gritty, and revels in its grittiness, and just might put a gun to your head if you don’t utter that word while describing it. Grit, as a show’s defining characteristic, certainly doesn’t have to be a negative. But when it’s gratuitous or seems to exist for its own sake, it’s a problem, and that, unfortunately, is the case with StartUp. This show goes dark, frequently, but it never gets deep.
It also moves at a sometimes maddeningly slow pace, and not in the evocative South Florida slow burn way found in the aforementioned Bloodline. The first episode introduces Nick Talman (Brody), a finance guy whose father prefers his money well-laundered and leaves a pile of it in Nick’s care so he can get an aggressive FBI agent (Freeman) off his back; Izzy (Marrero), the computer whiz who invented GenCoin, the non-regulated, bitcoin-esque cryptocurrency that could change the way people exchange goods and services; and Ronald (Gathegi), a Haitian father and gangster with unsavory connections to Nick’s dad. But it takes two full episodes for Nick, Izzy, and Ronald to form the alliance that makes them corrupted co-investors in the start-up that gives this show its name. Before the narrative gets to that point, it wallows in shoot-outs, shouting matches and, within the first 15 minutes alone, three unnecessary sex scenes. The whole things turns wearisome pretty quickly.
Character development is not StartUp’s strong suit, but the actors mostly manage to rise above that. Gathegi and Brody bring nuance and authenticity to a pair of roles that, as written, don’t have much of either. And then there’s Freeman, whose performance is committed here in ways both admirable and distracting. Like everyone in this show, FBI agent Phil Rask operates without regard for ethics. He’s also all sharp edges and absolutely zero soft corners, a personality type that Freeman digs into with a fury that demonstrates just how wide his range is. There are certainly no traces of Tim from the original Office, or even Lester Nygaard from Fargo, here; as for Bilbo Baggins, the role Freeman played in Peter Jackson’s The Hobbit, he was, in all likelihood, murdered as a result of this performance. As disciplined as Freeman is, he’s so intense at times that he doesn’t seem recognizably human. Technically, maybe, someone could spend five minutes with this guy and not reach the conclusion that he has the potential to become a serial killer. But it’s hard to imagine.
What’s missing from StartUp as a whole is subtlety and broader insight into these characters and their respective milieus. The show makes a point of noting that crime is a virus that infects all elements of Miami society, from those in disadvantaged, gang-controlled Little Haiti to the white privileged businessmen residing in homes with sweeping views of Biscayne Bay. But it’s too preoccupied with pushing its action into stereotypically dangerous directions to truly immerse itself, or us, in the city’s comingled economies and ethnic groups. Cryptocurrency is supposed to take the notion of exchanging money into a never-bef0re-seen direction. But even with all its references to game-changing technology, the color of money and crime drama in StartUp look the same as they have for decades.