Startups may be a risky entrepreneurial venture, but Crackle has done everything it can to protect its investment. In “StartUp,” some shielding is for the best — like the casting of respected character actor (and fan favorite) Martin Freeman — and some damage a quality product, like the overt sex scenes uncomfortably forced into far too many scenes. Yet unlike the young channel’s first dramatic offering, the disastrously ineffectual “The Art of More,” the choices driving “StartUp” seem to be well-intentioned — and the growing pains could disappear over time.
Slowly coming together over its first few episodes, the characters populating Ben Katai’s (“Chosen”) second series aren’t the easiest to identify with, but they’re not quite antiheroes either. We first meet FBI Agent Phil Rask (Freeman) when he walks silently into a hotel room while a couple is having sex. Without saying a word, he sits down and watches them until he’s noticed. An intimidation move meant to swing the impending negotiation in his favor, some of Phil’s decisions are as justifiable as they are unpredictable. Others — like when he beats the shit out of his own car — are either heavily metaphoric or only there to keep us guessing.
But then there’s Nick Talman (Adam Brody), a small business loans financier in Miami whose father can’t stop getting him in trouble — and dragging his son into it. This time, dear ol’ dad convinces Nick to hide soon-to-be-laundered money for a few days, and that may be as morally iffy as things got for the money savvy youngster if Izzy Morales (Otmara Marrero) hadn’t walked into his office with a pitch for GenCoin, a new digital asset and payment system protected from global economic forces that’s also — conveniently — untraceable. Seeing an opportunity in Izzy, Nick invests the money in her startup (get it?) and, well, things get complicated from there.
That description doesn’t even tie-in the fourth member of our core ensemble — Ronald, a Haitian gang member looking to do right by his ostracized community and struggling family — but his involvement feels like the biggest stretch anyway. There are moments early on that feel a bit extraneous, and a few too many conversations explaining how GenCoin works do damper the excitement a tad. Katai’s consistent solution to this is to throw naked, writhing bodies on the screen, but “StartUp” finds its best rhythm once the pieces are in place — no gimmicks needed.
By the time Phil strides across a helicopter pad on a rooftop in downtown Miami, “StartUp” does just enough right to merit continued viewing. Even if we don’t get nearly enough snark from the King of Quips, Mr. Adam Brody, the touches of levity give the impression Katai knows some of this stuff is just for fun. Moreover, he earns the more serious scenes because they’re balanced between a few chuckles and a few thrills.
Guiding the way is Freeman, an actor often cast as the straight man who’s given even more meat to chew on than when he discovered his inner demons of “Fargo.” For as outrageous as Phil can come across, Freeman finds a common theme in his madness: resentment. Phil has some unresolved issues with his father and ex-wife, both of which surface in his job more than he may even realize. But Freeman knows it, and his assurance keeps the character from spinning out of control.
Brody, who serves as a producer as well, hits the right marks in one of his few purely dramatic roles. A typical go-to for comic relief, Brody does, at times, feel like he’s holding back a bit of the old energy — a joke or a smile when he shouldn’t be doing either — and if Freeman wasn’t so good as the ruthless and mysterious Agent Rask, one might wish Brody had been given a shot at the part.
Gathegi is the second most impressive of a cast without any bad apples. The “Blacklist” and “Justifed” guest star carries an appropriate saunter to his tough-as-nails gangster whose family life, for once, doesn’t feel tacked on or contradictory. Gathegi earns those quiet moments with equal force and complimentary characteristics to the battles he fights on the streets. Ronald may not fit in just right after three episodes, but the show has proven it can pivot just enough to make perceived problems disappear.
“StartUp” isn’t the prestige TV series Crackle needs to break out on the streaming scene, and sometimes it feels like it’s trying to hard to fit a predefined standard, throwing in “grittier” bits without establishing purpose. Freeman, though, is something to see (especially for fans), and there are just enough memorable moments to keep “StartUp” out of the red.