StartUp, the uneven but intriguing new series from streaming service Crackle, likes to watch people having sex. The pilot episode features nearly every lead character getting it on, and a few others besides. Subsequent episodes continue the habit, with most throwing at least one scene of carnal activity into the proceedings, even if it’s just Game Of Thrones-style scenery sex. It’s hot and steamy, and each encounter tells you a little something about the people involved. There’s no copulating just for the hell of it.
The setup is so sweaty, it takes a while before you realize the show is making an ambitious play to be The Wire of Miami. It’s a massive, sprawling world being depicted, but we see almost everything through the eyes of the main characters. From drive-by shootings to bank deals, it’s rare for the perspective to stray from that of the four leads. (When it does briefly leave them behind for a sequence with a minor supporting role, it’s—wait for it—a sexual encounter.) That focus on getting to know only a few people helps rein in the bloat, and keeps StartUp from collapsing under the weight of its ambition.
The series excels when it brings together its various subcultures via the unifying thread of its protagonists’ dream, a new business they hope will be a screaming success, though for contrasting reasons. Programming whiz Izzy (Otmara Marrero) spent seven years developing a new digital currency, GenCoin, which is both the show’s MacGuffin and also the means by which it gets to hold court on issues of finance, cybersecurity, and a host of other contemporary political topics it addresses in ways both clever and occasionally clunky. After being turned down by every bank and venture capitalist in town, she finds an ally in Nick (Adam Brody, fine-tuning his likable-nebbish persona), a man with a solid job and loving wife, but who fancies himself doing something more. Nick sees in Izzy and GenCoin a means to achieving his philanthropic vision of starting a micro-lending company and helping the world’s poor—or really, anything that defines him in opposition to his money-laundering father, on whom the FBI, in the person of agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman), is closing in.
But the show doesn’t want to be a modern Halt And Catch Fire, examining the stresses and strains of birthing a bold new technology into the world. The motor driving the series is a soap-worthy hook: In order to launch GenCoin, squeaky-clean Nick takes $2.2 million in dirty money his father asked him to launder, and has Izzy bury it in shell companies to act as seed capital. From those initial 30 pieces of silver spins out a series of escalating crises and moral compromises, as every attempt to go straight from shady beginnings just plunges them back into the murky swamp of illicit business dealings—especially once the people whose money it is come calling.
Or so it would seem. The most promising (and also most vexing) aspects of the series radically expand the universe of StartUp. One is Freeman’s character, a corrupt agent whom we meet in the opening minutes of the show cutting a deal with Nick’s father, taking half of his recent score in exchange for not prosecuting him. It’s a good role for Freeman, in large part because it plays off our endearing associations with him and makes this slimy jerk far more likable than he would be otherwise. He’s fit and magnetic, with a steely resolve that‘s surprisingly intimidating, while Freeman’s soulful gaze hints at the frustration and turmoil underneath. Even in moments when he explodes, it’s a controlled demolition—a man who wants to cut loose, yet knows it would be his end. But his character pivots between conflicted antihero and menacing asshole in ways that suggest the show has yet to capture the nuances of the role as fully as Freeman.
The other wild card, and the series’ entry into the gang activity and criminal underworld of Miami, is Ronald, played with smoldering intensity by Edi Gathegi. He functions as the flip side of Freeman’s good guy gone bad: A high-level Haitian gang member who is also a loving father and husband, looking for a way to improve his community and lot in life. After passing a large sum of the gang’s money to Nick’s father for laundering, he soon goes looking for the man, and finds Nick instead. Watching Ronald’s brittle anger and generous spirit compete for control of his actions provides some of the show’s most electrifying moments. But it also veers dangerously close to the Traffic problem of playing on white fears about black aggression; everyone we meet in the Haitian community not directly related to Ronald is a one-note gangster, something the series needs to fix if it’s going to present a complex portrait of the economically depressed subcultures of its Floridian setting. An old friend of Ronald’s we meet in episode three, a wealthy athlete who left the neighborhood behind, is a good start.
But for all the deep dives into Nick’s world of privilege, Izzy’s close-knit family and her personal struggles, and Ronald’s knife’s-edge lifestyle, StartUp really shines when it sets all that aside and delivers the excitement. Each episode increases the stakes and the tension, digging GenCoin’s hardy entrepreneurs deeper into illicit activity the harder they try to extricate themselves from their ill-gotten beginnings. By halfway through the season, the show has not only revealed unseen depths to each character’s personality, but used those shadings to ramp up the intensity, staging race-against-time struggles in both the digital and real worlds that roil with adrenaline-laced exhilaration. Hacker montages are a tough sell—at the end of the day, it’s still just people typing furiously—but StartUp finds inventive ways to imbue these scenes with kinetic physicality.
The show’s weaknesses are familiar ones, typical freshman-season growing pains. It doesn’t always trust its storytelling: There’s a few too many scenes of telling rather than showing, asking characters to explain what should be clear from the narrative. Gathegi’s Ronald gets the worst of these, including some real groaners about the fundamental lack of difference between big bankers and gang members, as though the series’ depiction of show-me-the-money avarice hadn’t already made it clear. Freeman is also saddled with a couple expositional struggles, and some cliched cop-speak about how they do things a little differently ’round here. But the actors are so good, and their live-wire performances so gripping, it sells both the hokey moments and belief-beggaring coincidences with aplomb.
The real discovery here is Marrero, a relative newcomer with only a handful of roles under her belt but who crackles with the electricity of a thousand dial-up modems connecting in unison. She makes Izzy into a compelling and instantly relatable schemer, a brilliant overachiever misunderstood as a hopeless naif. The driven ferocity of her hunger for something more, for the world to stand and take notice of her genius, is ably conveyed in Marrero’s fiery eyes as much as Izzy’s graceless physicality.
The show has big aims, and that ambition is admirable, even if it hasn’t yet gotten a handle on the many elements of its outsized storytelling. It wants to be a close character study of desperate souls, a nail-biting thriller, a penetrating exposé of the classism and racism that permeates Miami, and a thoughtful meditation on the expectations of contemporary American values. It still moves in fits and starts, but each of the first five episodes improves on the last, and as the show focuses more on the strength of its breakneck storytelling, it’s becoming not just the best reason to try Crackle, but one of the more promising new streaming series of the year.