There are four sex scenes in the 54-minute pilot of “Startup.” The drama, from Sony’s streaming platform Crackle, follows an unlikely group of collaborators in Miami who band together to develop a digital currency (akin to the real-life Bitcoin). But this particular founding story is riddled with crime — from the fraudulently obtained funds that comprise GenCorp’s seed money to the crooked FBI agent trying to get his own money back.
This is a weak spine for quite so much fornication, but six-and-a-half minutes in, there’s already two sex scenes; by minute 13, the third. In the first scene of “Startup,” a prostitute/party girl draws a rich old man to a private room so that she can show her assets to the camera. As an act of (presumed) audience’s desires coming to life, the FBI agent walks in and settles down in an armchair to watch, as the nubile nameless woman rides the mostly clothed old man.
“Startup” is a hacking thriller grafted onto an action movie, primarily so that Martin Freeman can walk around menacingly while speaking in an unsettlingly bland American accent. Freeman is the FBI agent — and though one cannot laud his choice of roles, he plays Phil Rask with unsettling repressed anger, a lot of it tied up in resentment towards women. Perhaps that is why episode three opens in a brothel. But it’s also that “Startup” is playing with pornographic imagery because it assumes that is what makes a drama “prestigious,” when in fact it is padding its episodes with pointless, male-gazing sex scenes because it doesn’t know what else to do with all the time it has to fill its 10-episode order.
The odd thing, too, is that Freeman, as the show’s Big Bad, is largely superfluous. The prestige drama tropes swirl around him — antihero! repression! good cop gone bad! — but the actual story seems to run in the other direction. It’s with Nick (Adam Brody), Izzy (Otmara Marrero), and Roland (Edi Gathegi) that the cross-cultural founding of GenCorp emerges, and each supporting character offers different strengths to the plot. Brody is charmingly well-cast as the perpetually clueless guy who mostly succeeds with his good looks; Gathegi is a thrilling performer adding dimension to the thankless role of “thug”; and though Marrero isn’t quite as compelling, her character at least comes part and parcel with a loud and dysfunctional family that is more fun to watch than 90 percent of the rest of the show.
When “Startup” manages to leave its sex scenes behind and gets to creating storytelling around largely unexplored territory in the cinematic universe, it is its smartest and most compelling. The Cuban-American family dynamics and the status of Haitian immigrants in Miami are intriguing; even the cybercurrency babble is at least educational.
Unfortunately, those moments of interest are sporadic. “Startup” otherwise meanders forward with all the grace of a sex-starved teenage boy, skidding from the exotic to the illicit — strip clubs, gangs, prostitutes, cocaine, semiautomatic weapons, and the vaguely rendered imagery of “hacking” — all accompanied by a score that anticipates every major moment with jumpy, excitable strings.
It seems clear that “Start Up” wants to be a kind of “Mr. Robot,” but in the attempt reveals that the USA show’s success isn’t about a collection of buzzwords but about vision and style. “Startup” is by contrast a show with barely a modicum of inspiration. It’s only necessary viewing if you’re curious to see how many drama tropes can be crammed into one show before something vital has to give.