Warning this contains spoilers for Season 1. Not seen Startup? Catch up with our spoiler-free review here.
“There’s a new tech frontier on the horizon,” says Nick (Adam Brody) in Season 2 of Startup. If you’re getting deja vu, you’re not alone – because he, tech whiz Izzy (Otmara Marrero) and gangster Ronald (Edi Gathegi) are still getting over the last tech frontier that they spied on the horizon, and slipped over the edge and out of sight. That was GenCoin, a Bitcoin-like cryptocurrency that Izzy had cooked up in her garage, only for entrepreneur Alex (Aaron Yoo) to swan in, snap up most of the stock and seize control of the whole thing. Throw in Martin Freeman as corrupt FBI agent Phil Rask, chasing down Nick’s dad for some money he’s owed, and you had TV show that, while never hitting the binge-watching heights of modern TV’s best, was endlessly snackable.
Season 2 is set to do exactly the same all over again, as the show’s sophomore run almost emerges as a total reboot. Save for the fact that Rask is still suffering from having to cover up his murder of his partner in Season 1, this is essentially StartUp 2.0: new product, new investors, new threats, and the same old flawed characters caught in the middle.
In some ways, it’s a smart move: half of the first season’s appeal was the way that it sank its teeth into its premise, actually managing to capture some of the intrigue and innovation behind the world of virtual money, a zeitgeist topic that’s only going to become more fashionable in the future. Here, creator Ben Ketai bites off another chunk of the cyber cookie: the dark net. What if there was a new Tor? Could anything be the next underground web? And what would it look like or be used for?
Otmara Marrero’s Izzy is a huge part of what makes the show work, able to chat enthusiastically, bitterly and genuinely about the things she’s coding: we care because she does, not because Adam Brody’s would-be finance genius tells us to. A family tragedy for her, meanwhile, and the return of old faces from a painful past gives Marrero a chance to play more than just the token hacker who downloads exposition into the series mainframe. Brody, meanwhile, is as likeable as ever, trying to reconcile his dodgy dad’s legacy with his own urge to follow in his footsteps: it’s no surprise that Rask, finding a fall guy for his homicide, is all too happy to try and frame Nick for every crime he can.
Freeman’s bent man of the law was the highlight last time around, relishing the chance to be menacing, threatening and rude – all under the veneer of that familiar, nice-guy schtick. He gave the show an unpredictable edge, as well as a dose of violence, because StartUp doesn’t try to be the next Mr. Robot: it tries to be Breaking Bad as well.
A neat opening monologue aside, though, Freeman’s Rask is sadly now a bit-player in this story, giving more room for the new MVP: Ronald. Edi Gathegi is quietly delivering a starmaking turn in every episode, playing the Haitian with a heart just on the right point of the line between stereotype and sincere: we see him caring for his family more than we do on the streets, worrying about the trauma affecting his son, Tourie (an excellent Kelvin Harrison Jr.), after he shot someone. It’s that emotional drive that pushes Arachnet, Izzy’s new idea – because Ronald wants a way to push drugs faster around Miami without having to stand on street corners, so he can take his family somewhere else. Nick, meanwhile, spies an opportunity to build something global. The catch? They need to sell legal produce to get a big enough user base.
It’s here, in the grubby grey areas that the Internet opens up, where StartUp is gradually carving a groove for itself: it’s a show that understands the intrinsic links between crime and tech, between finance and crime, and how all of those can shape, or be shaped by, the multicultural society in which they’re conceived. And rising matriarch Vera (Vera Cherny), slowly taking over GenCoin, is at the heart of it – and Touie, facing down criticisms of his dad in the neighbourhood, is on the blunt end of it. There’s a thirst for privacy and security in modern society, but there’s also a hunger to get out from the world of crime and poverty – what if one can’t exist without the other? That makes the show sound smarter than it is, perhaps, thanks to its penchant for slightly silly dialogue and larger-than-life characters (the always-entertaining Ron Perlman shows up as a wealthy businessman Nick is trying to woo as an investor), but StartUp’s cast sell it all with straight-faced dedication, while Ketai keeps on ramping up the pace, never giving you the time to pause and reflect on behaviour, exchanges or logic.
At its heart, it remains an ensemble piece about a charismatic trio of people trying to make a difference in a shifting world of technology – but Halt and Catch Fire this ain’t. And, crucially, it doesn’t want to be: AMC’s superb, profound computing drama is one of the best shows around, adding personal insight to an age that has already become the norm. StartUp, on the other hand, just wants to be cool, with its edgy theme tune, swaggering young cast and confidently breakneck storytelling (the editing is top-notch, sporting a range of neat match cuts). And as long as it succeeds on those superficial terms, this wonderfully trashy drama will always be worth a nibble. Who knows? If StartUp can keep finding new horizons to chase, a Season 3 wouldn’t be hard to swallow either.
All episodes of StartUp Season 1 and 2 are available to watch online on Amazon Prime Video as part of a £5.99 monthly subscription.