“I have an idea.” “Is it a good one?” “Maybe.”
That’s Nick (Adam Brody) to Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero) in StartUp, a financial tech thriller that sees a group of young people trying to launch their own crypto-currency. What’s a crypto-currency, you say? That’s the question that the show is very careful to answer, so that the audience can keep up. In fact, it keeps on answering it again and again, just in case the people at the back weren’t paying attention. If you had a drink every time someone said “like PayPal?”, you’d be out cold within 20 minutes.
Luckily, though, creator Ben Ketai is smart enough to tie that exposition into the show’s plot: the crypto-currency is GemCoin. The reason it’s being explained over and over? That’s because its inventor, Izzy Morales (Otamara Marrero), keeps pitching it to different investment funds, hoping to find financial backing. She’s not having much luck raising money – until she walks into the office of Nick (Adam Brody), who is so won over by her pitch that he quits his job and puts all his money into her venture. Why? Because that money has come from his dodgy dad, and he wants to use it to do some good in the world, perhaps even make a difference. The pair are soon joined by Ronald (Edi Gathegi), a Haitian gang member who takes his crew’s stash and puts it in the currency too, hoping to go legit.
That’s where StartUp finds the secret to its success: in the reasons for each of these seemingly disparate people to all gamble on the same thing. What happens once they do is often clunky and not always brilliantly thought-out, as the series struggles to escape its cycle of pitch-fail-pitch-again that fuels its narrative. There are moments where things turn into an episode of Hustle, as they attempt to con a big spender (Wayne Knight, aka. Nedry from Jurassic Park, hugely enjoying himself as a sexist douche) into thinking they’re successful. There are other moments where Izzy finds herself in a code-off with a hacker trying to take them down. There’s even a bit with someone tied up in a bloody bathtub. To say it’s uneven is an understatement.
But the cast embrace that uneven nature, each one bringing a likeable conviction to their roles. Marrero sells her desperation with an earnestness that stays just on the right side of melodrama, while it’s a pleasure to see The OC’s Brody back on our screens in a regular role, channeling that familiar nervy angst into a naivety that’s destined to be corrupted. Gathegi, though, is the best of the bunch, constantly undermining his menacing, thuggish presence with outbursts of intelligence and a no-nonsense attitude that cuts through the kind of business talk that could have bogged things down. Scenes with his family are a lovely display of nuanced character development.
Together, the three make for an entertaining team, not because they gel naturally, but because they never do, giving their behaviour an unpredictable quality that echoes the unusual narrative structure, which seems to veer wherever it likes with each new hour.
Hot on their heels is FBA agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman), who has a claim to Nick’s stolen money and is determined to get it back. Freeman is fantastic, following Fargo and his on-stage Richard III with another eager chance to subvert his nice-guy persona. “They play nasty,” he tells his new colleague, “so we can too.” He certainly does, whether that’s beating someone up with part of a toilet cistern or shooting another in the back. All the while, he blinks and smiles with all the outward politeness of Sherlock’s John Watson: one scene where he grills Nick just by making ultra-polite smalltalk is squirm-inducingly good.
Rask, like the others, introduces more haphazard story threads, including a development with his partner, who’s just been transferred to his department, that doesn’t captivate you as much as you’d hope, not to mention a family drama (including an ex with benefits) that feels like it’s there just to bump up the sexiness count. But what he also does is drive the show forwards. StartUp’s fast pace is an admirable change to the norm for many modern, ponderous TV shows, and that keeps you tuning in episode after episode to see what on earth will be added to the script next. It gives events a greater urgency, as the back-stories build up, but that urgency also means that you have less time to question the logic behind characters’ actions. Like a shark, StartUp has to keep moving or it dies. To its credit, it doesn’t stop moving.
There are times when the show genuinely nears brilliance, as Rask explains exactly why Miami is a hotbed of corrupt money, immigrants, gangs, dodgy real estate and entrepreneurs. But it’s a monologue that teases a world we never quite get a full sense of, even as an angel investor draws us deeper into the world of shady nightclubs that exist behind the glossy boardrooms and hipster offices. For all its flaws, though, the charismatic performances and the rough-around-the-edges feel of a startup gradually finding its feet make for a surprisingly compelling binge-watch. “I have an idea,” says Izzy, as things go badly wrong. “Is it a good one?” asks Nick. “Maybe,” comes the reply. The episode ends there, and there’s a pleasingly raw quality to a programme that uses such optimistic uncertainty as the basis of a cliffhanger. By the end of Season 1, you even have a renewed understanding of exactly why crypto-currency could be a major game-changer in both finance and society as a whole. Does StartUp give you a good return on your time spent watching it? Not always, but you won’t regret the investment.
All episodes of StartUp Season 1 is available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.