(Article contains mild spoliers)
StartUp: The Best Prestige Drama You’ve Never Seen
The cancellation of Sony Crackle’s StartUp represents a disruptive opportunity for a more forward thinking network or streaming service.
“We must always try to visualize a new idea because that which we can visualize is that which we can achieve.” This was part of the mission statement Harry Warner crafted when he and his family founded Warner Bros. Studios. And while I have no illusions about Hollywood’s ability to cure societal woes, its power to normalize a concept through representation cannot be underestimated.
That’s why I was upset to hear that StartUp, the Sony Crackle drama was canceled. “What’s StartUp?” you might ask. StartUp is the most underrated drama in recent television history. It’s an intelligently gripping and complicated series that leverages procedural aspects of entrepreneurship to discuss the moral dilemmas of the digital economy. Adam Brody plays Nick Talman, a young investment banker eager to make a his mark on the world. After reluctantly receiving a pen drive full of laundered money accounts as his father skips town, Nick hears Stanford dropout Izzy Morales, (Otmara Marrero) pitch a democratizing version of a cryptocurrency project and decides to invest. The pair later discover that a large portion of that money is from Ronald Dacey, second in command of a criminal street gang played by Edi Gathegi. The trio form the eponymous StartUp featured on the show.
StartUp is a series so good, it’s infuriating that the show never got its due. Most people I speak to have never seen StartUp because critics widely panned it early on. A majority of reviewers openly admitted to not watching past the first few episodes. This is a cardinal sin in the era of long form storytelling where things usually take off around episode four. But for StartUp this was also a death knell because the show never received the critical attention it deserved or the online engagement that would have certainly catapulted it into realm of “Prestige Drama.”
Aside from extremely insightful writing, what makes StartUp unique is that it’s a show about minorities which doesn’t call attention to their victimhood. It’s one of the rare television series to treat Black and minority achievement with the subtlety and verisimilitude worthy of a prestige drama. Where lesser television shows reduce diversity to a box-ticking exercise by only considering it at the casting stage, series creator Ben Ketai weaves crucial backstories into the narrative from the show’s inception.
Set in Miami and featuring a Latina coder, a Jewish financier, and a Haitian gangster, StartUp handles diversity in a completely organic way. In fact, StartUp seems to have hit the holy grail where the stories of minorities have magnified the characters’ internal conflicts so much that the diversity aspect falls away letting each individual come into focus instead. All the characters are second generation immigrants struggling with upward mobility on both the personal and professional fronts: each character must subversively betray the norms of their heritage in order to succeed.
In addition to groundbreaking treatment of minority leads, StartUp offers both sensitive and subversive portrayals of immigrant characters in their supporting cast. The first two seasons feature an Asian CEO grappling with the fact that he’s merely a frontispiece for a powerful female Russian mafia leader who shows more intelligence and acumen than her vindictive brother. Just ask yourself have you ever before seen a woman on television holding it together while a man fell victim to his emotions? And StartUp isn’t a zero sum game either. It’s a world where all minorities- Haitians, Cubans, and even Skinheads — momentarily set aside their differences in pursuit of the almighty dollar. A world that, during the Season One finale, protagonist Ronald Dacey (played to perfection by the amazing Edi Gathegi) is quick to point out “ain’t America” but is Miami.
When you compare it to the recent Netflix dramas Hollywood or Self-Made: Inspired by the life of Madame CJ Walker, the self-actualization of StartUp’s characters is handled with nuance and respect, making the drama resonate emotionally with the viewer. By contrast what’s so infuriating about both Hollywood and Self-Made is that the treatment is so fantastical it undermines the legitimacy of the story being told. Hollywood is so speculative that it glosses over all the egregious wrongs of the era and doesn’t speak to the lifelong trauma of racism or sexual harassment. While, perhaps even more disappointing, is the fact that Madame CJ Walker’s story has been reduced to melodrama with fictitious colorism (prejudice based on skin tone) and an a trivialized presentation of the era’s musical influences randomly injected into the narrative.When the development of a character’s agency is treated with such fluff and fabrication it becomes less threatening to the mainstream, but also harder to reconcile with reality.
Throughout television history comedy seems to be the comfort genre for African American television but, despite the fact that the 1977 miniseries Roots holds the record as one of the highest rated television events in America, Black drama continues to struggle.
As television director Pete Chatmon (Silicon Valley, Insecure, Always Sunny in Philadelphia) notes, another major problem with how Hollywood tackles racism is that it’s usually done in a period drama which gives the viewer the notion that racism is a problem of the past, not a current condition. And while HBO’s Watchmen commendably addresses racism with more emotional resonance, its Super Hero/ Comic Book genesis squarely locates the show within the realm of fantasy, simultaneously inhabiting the past and a fictitious present. StartUp is a contemporary drama, offering not just realism but a relevance and urgency for all the issues it explores. Veteran television writer Paul Mooney (Sanford & Sons, Good Times, The Chappelle Show) notes that “When you write something that deals with the truth and it’s earnest, political and social, it lasts forever.” This is StartUp.
After the advances and retreats of Season One, the cryptocurrency project is stillborn, but our trio rise from the flames with a new project, a dark web platform for Season Two. Once a company is finally established, Season Three applies pressure on said company’s financial resources and infrastructure via shadowy government agents as each character plus a few new ones seek to protect their own interests (Ron Perlman as money man, Wes Chandler and Addison Timlin playing Mara, his daughter and chief marketing strategist).
The problem is that StartUp was canceled after the Season Three finale at the very moment when a woman and a Black man align with each other to take control of the company. Given that no official announcement was made by Sony to either the public or the show’s cast makes one wonder whether StartUp’s cancellation is similar to that of Good Girls Revolt, a series based on the true story of female journalists suing for equal opportunities at Newsweek. The cancellation of Good Girls Revolt caused an uproar when Amazon executive Roy Price axed the show just as the female characters were gaining momentum and then was forced to resign himself within the year due to sexual harassment.
According to Alan L. Gansberg, a television screenwriter, producer and Dean of Columbia College Hollywood, a CBS executive once told him that two dramatic television series from the early 1980s — one with Louis Gosset, Jr. and one starring James Earl Jones — were both being canceled in the same year because a segment of the population was uncomfortable seeing Black males in positions of authority. This along with the disappointing and controversial cancellation of these recent shows leaves me asking: Why is it still so difficult to show women and minorities in relevant and realistic scenarios of power on television?
Is it solely because there aren’t enough women and people of color in decision-making positions? Or is it something more deep-seated? Going back to Harry Warner’s quote, are empowering images of women and people of color something that Americans aren’t ready to visualize yet or just those in positions of power?
In the midst of Americans protesting police brutality against minorities, global African entertainment website Shadow and Act reported a record-breaking bidding war for Will Smith’s new film about a runaway slave that enlists in the Union Army. The backlash on Twitter was palpable. One user responded: “I think I’m good on these runaway stories. Streets want to know when we will get a Haitian revolution movie where the slaves free themselves.” While another wrote: “Why not fund an Afrofuturist film, Black science fiction, a vision of a better and more just world? Why the same stories about Black subjugation and trauma over and over and over and…?” But the most proactive response of all called for Hollywood to #StopSlavePorn and instead “give $17 million to 10 different directors of color to break in” and “make modern films starring black leads.”
When ABC’s sitcom Black-ish first debuted in 2014 a friend who taught African American Media Studies asked people on Facebook for their thoughts about the forthcoming show. Living abroad before worldwide releases had become a thing, I wasn’t familiar with it. But the hype was so pervasive I knew that Black-ish was launching on the 30th anniversary of the premiere of the Cosby Show. I responded, “Thirty years after Cosby and all African Americans are getting from Hollywood is a thirty minute sitcom? When there’s a black equivalent of Mad Men, that’s when I’ll watch.” To me the fact that representation is as disproportionate in genre as it is in media as a whole is an equally large injustice. Especially when you have a top talent like Edi Gathegi playing Ronald Dacey, a character as compelling and nuanced as Don Draper.
With streaming series emerging as the preeminent art form of the 21st century, The Sopranos and The Wire have often been referred to as the Shakespeare and Dickens of our times; Mad Men our Mark Twain. And in this platinum age of television, StartUp has taken the baton from Mad Men to become one of television’s most intimate reflections of contemporary American culture. It deserves a fourth season and we as a society deserve to see women and minorities as the CEOs and policy makers some already are in reality.
AMC are you listening? The cancellation of StartUp could be another programming disruptor for you.