In this ongoing era of “peak TV,” every network in the small-screen landscape is trying to plant its flag nearest the summit. Quality programming is no longer a privilege reserved to the elite few; though HBO and FX may reign supreme, viewers are both spoiled for choice these days and barraged with it from every conceivable outlet. And many have learned that the quickest way to break big is to embrace originality and ambition as twin prerogatives.
Amid this fever pitch, there are at least a dozen series that have mastered both, understanding that with so much quality content out there, blazing an unfamiliar trail is key to standing out. But then there are also far too many shows like “StartUp,” debuting Sept. 6 on Sony’s inchoate Crackle network, that echo elements of past TV hits, from the heat-wave setting of “Burn Notice” to the moral opacity of “The Shield,” without (at least judging from the five episodes sent for review) offering any sense of creative independence or innovation.
The hourlong drama, whose first season runs for 10 episodes, centers on three unlikely entrepreneurs in the sweltering city of Miami, who use dirty money to bankroll the creation of a digital currency system, dubbed GenCoin, that they believe could change the face of personal finance.
There’s spunky tech whiz Isabelle “Izzy” Morales (Otmara Marrero), the enterprising mind behind GenCoin; Nick Talman (Adam Brody), a well-meaning loan officer who funds her with money his dog of a father pilfered from Haitian gangsters (spoiler that should be obvious: This poor decision comes back to bite them), and Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi), a ruthless gang lieutenant who’s enticed both by GenCoin’s potential profit and the chance to get in on a slightly more legitimate business endeavor.
The generic aspects of these three characters are myriad, from Nick’s played-out “good man trying to escape his father’s shadow” backstory to Izzy’s characterization as a garage-dwelling, underdog genius. All the actors are fine, though the one real bright spot is Gathegi’s complex, hair-trigger portrayal of Ronald, who in his first scene holds his kids, kisses his wife good morning, and leaves the house to torture a gang hostage with a blowtorch. He’s a character viewers have seen before, but Gathegi brings a dangerous energy to the part that keeps it mesmerizing. A show solely set around the character, especially as he struggles to push his son away from the same criminal underworld in which he’s deeply involved, would elicit more narrative tension.
But, alas, that’s not the show Crackle has delivered. Instead, “StartUp” takes its three leads — along with Martin Freeman’s morally compromised FBI agent, whose hunt for the missing money is fueled by personal greed more than professional determination — and strands them in a swamp of sweaty sex scenes (there are three in the first third of the premiere alone) and unnecessary, over-the-top action set-pieces.
It’s the kind of series so slavishly devoted to its own aesthetic that it has no choice but to simplify and sometimes undercut the intriguing crypto-currency startup at its core. The gritty, suns-and-guns version of Miami presented here can be a hypnotic place, but it’s one “StartUp” never satisfyingly joins with the techier world of venture capitalists and virtual money that its setup is predisposed to explore. As a result, the series seems to be stuck at a crossroads, looking down the wrong path. “StartUp” could dig into the real implications of GenCoin, and capitalize on the excitement of watching its characters build something above and beyond the assorted corruptions of their spheres. Or it could continue to concern itself with the cheaper thrills of dirty, sexy money — and accept that, without serious creative recalculations, this “StartUp” is going nowhere fast.
Starring Otmara Marrero, Edi Gathegi, Adam Brody, Martin Freeman. On Crackle, streams Tuesday