Miami’s image gets a gritty, high-tech makeover in “StartUp,” a new web TV series launching this week that adds online mystery, financial crime, race and class conflict — and some intrinsically Miami characters — to the familiar memes of drug gangs and street shootings (though it has those, too). And while there’s plenty of sex, there’s a definite lack of bikinied surgical perfection.
“It feels like a dark and honest love letter to Miami,” says “StartUp” creator Ben Ketai. “Most shows feature the blue-skies South Beach version.”
The 10-episode series, which airs Tuesdays on Crackle, Sony Pictures Television’s web network, centers on Izzy Morales (Miami-raised Cuban-American actress Otmara Marrero), a tough Cuban-American computer whiz living in Hialeah who has created a virtual currency called GenCoin. Prickly and passionate (and working out of her parents’ Hialeah garage), Izzy joins up with Brickell financier Nick Talman (Adam Brody), who’s trying to escape the shadow of his corrupt father. They end up partnering with Ronald Dacey (Edi Gathegi), a Haitian-American family man and drug gang leader trying to escape street life. Pursuing them is FBI financial crimes agent Phil Rask (Martin Freeman, from “Fargo” and “Sherlock”), whose moral fervor (and frustration) leads him to make some legal compromises of his own.
There’s a lot of themes in “StartUp”: financial shenanigans online or in banks; malleable morals (Talman invests his dad’s dirty money in GenCoin, hoping to launder the cash ethically by bringing banking to the masses); the difference class (and color) makes in how the system treats those who break, or bend, its rules.
“It definitely came out of a desire to explore the darker, grittier side of startups and the tech community and dig into the intersection of where tech and crime and different cultures come together,” Ketai says. “This is really the only place you could tell a story like this. There’s this burgeoning tech community, and you have all these diverse cultures and neighborhoods and different people living on top of each other. The fact that Little Haiti is just minutes from the pristine neighborhoods on Biscayne Bay, or Overtown is not too far from Brickell.”
As Miami as all that sounds, “StartUp” is not, unfortunately, filmed here. Ketai and producers spent months researching the city. But Florida’s lack of tax credits for film productions sent “StartUp” to Puerto Rico.
“It was a shame after doing all the research and finding all these cool places we could shoot,” says Ketai, who is also the show’s writer and director. “It comes down to budget — we wanted to give the most bang for our buck.”
Miamians will be able to spot the differences between the real Little Haiti and the San Juan stand-in, or the kind of jungle that surrounds a hacker’s dilapidated mansion. (Note to producers — Okeechobee Road is nowhere near Miracle Mile.) But Ketai thinks (and hopes) most viewers won’t notice.
“As far as a lot of the architecture, there’s a lot [in Puerto Rico] which is modeled on Miami, past and current,” he says. “Also the beaches. Just don’t point the camera over where there’s a bunch of mountains.”
But in other ways “StartUp” feels authentic, starting with making two central characters Cuban-American and Haitian-American. Izzy’s fierce ambition, her hacker brilliance, toughness and resolutely non-fashion sense (sweaty T-shirts, baggy shorts) are refreshingly individual. That Ronald and his gang cohorts speak without a trace of Creole language or lilt feels off, but Ketai insists that younger Haitian-Americans (including Miami actor Lovensky Jean-Baptiste, who grew up in Little Haiti) shouldn’t sound like their elders.
With TV showcasing more diversity, from The CW’s Latino-centric “Jane the Virgin” (where L.A. stands in for Miami) to Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” on Netflix, “StartUp” producers got no challenges on the casting and characters, Ketai says.
“It was actually something the network encouraged from the start,” he says. “We talked about this story as a snapshot of America today, which means an incredible amount of diversity. That’s one reason Miami was a perfect place to set it.”
The images of cocaine violence and sunny pastel glamour projected by “Miami Vice” and “Scarface” in the ’80s have lingered for decades, layered with perky Latin ’90s sexiness a la “Welcome to Miami.” “StartUp” has its own exaggerations — a sub-plot about warring Overtown, Liberty City and Little Haiti drug gangs, and the kind of graphic sex that’s apparently requisite for TV dramas. But this is a drama, not a documentary. And the stories that “StartUp” tells, of strivers from all kinds of backgrounds pursuing the American dream, the allure of riches, the frustration and double standards of class differences, in a city that’s alternately sweaty jumble and shiny perfection, feel different from much of the media projected about Miami.
“When we got to Puerto Rico all the places they showed us to shoot were like Miami circa 1981,” Ketai says. “We had to say, ‘No, this is Miami now, not the Miami of the movies of the past 30 years.’ ”