The number of scripted TV shows has nearly doubled since 2012, but you can’t exactly double the talent pool in four years. By my layman’s understanding of the laws of economics, TV should be getting pretty crappy right about now. So why isn’t it?
There are great TV shows on broadcast, cable, premium cable and streaming services. There are great shows like surprise summer hit Stranger Things on Netflix that grew into a pop culture phenomenon almost entirely by word of mouth. There are great shows like Take My Wife, which is on a streaming network—Seeso—that didn’t even exist this time last year. There are as many shows with an 80-plus Metacritic rating through August as there were all of last year.
One place to look for answers is the new Crackle series StartUp. The Miami drama, which premieres all 10 episodes today, is scripted smartly enough by creator Ben Ketai that it can speak to big issues—sex, violence, race, gender, tech, income inequality and the future of world currency markets—without skimping on a tight story or believable characters.
Crackle may not even be on your radar. The free, ad-supported streaming service has been around since 2004, is available on all the same platforms where you’re watching Netflix and has a major-category Emmy nomination this year for Jerry Seinfeld’s Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee. But it hasn’t had a breakout hit on the magnitude of Netflix’s House of Cards or Amazon Prime’s Transparent.
StartUp has the stuff to be that kind of show.
The series begins with distinct stories built around Martin Freeman (Sherlock) as a sleazy FBI agent who investigates financial crimes, Adam Brody (The OC) as an investment banker whose money-laundering dad disappears and leaves him a seven-figure problem, Edi Gathegi (The Blacklist) as a Little Haiti crime boss who wants his money back and Otmara Marrero (Graceland) as a young Cuban-American software developer who has built the architecture for a bitcoin-like digital currency that could topple the banking system.
StartUp develops along conventional lines—a cat-and-mouse game with Freeman chasing the others, a generational story about analog parents and digital kids, an intercultural story about people from widely varying backgrounds suddenly having to get along—but it’s no after-school special with polite things to say about cooperation and diversity. In fact, it has a lot to say about cooperation and diversity as kindling for a volatile clash of cultures and conflicting points of view, but there’s an underlying value—a morality even—to getting along without going along.
“When all this is over,” one character says in an early episode, “I’m gonna go my way and you can go back to your cushy vanilla life where you feel real comfortable and not scared.”
You can’t go back, and you won’t want to. StartUp isn’t trying to teach you about representation; it’s a great story that just happens to have a lot of it. The story moves from Little Haiti to the Everglades to the tawny planned communities of South Beach to the middle-class Miami suburbs. It’s representative because that’s the story. It’s good TV with a social conscience, but it’s good TV first.
The engine in the Peak TV era has been young showrunners like Sam Esmail (USA’s Mr. Robot) and Jessica Goldberg (Hulu’s The Path) who would likely be working on someone else’s show but for the industry growing too fast to sustain a wait-your-turn system. StartUp creator Ben Ketai is a 34-year-old filmmaker who co-created the Crackle web series Chosen and has written and directed a handful of indie films, and now he’s got a show with a lot of things to say and the budget and space to say them.
Martin Freeman and Adam Brody are names you probably know. Edi Gathegi and Otmara Marrero are names you probably don’t know, and their performances are the breakouts. StartUp is a show that wouldn’t have been made four years ago, and neither would Netflix’s Lady Dynamite or Amazon Prime’s One Mississippi or dozens of others. Those shows were too specific, too niche, made by people with too little big-time-TV experience, and on platforms that either didn’t exist or were just getting started.
And now, all the sudden, those very liabilities are the secrets to great TV.