Arts tv review

‘Start-Up’ delivers big heart and big data

Silicon Valley meets second lead syndrome in Netflix K-drama

Directed by Oh Choong-hwan
Written by Park Hye-ryun
Starring Bae Suzy, Nam Joo-hyuk, Kim Seon-ho, Kang Han-na
Streaming on Netflix

Start-Up is the crossover you didn’t know you needed: a Korean drama series about young entrepreneurs struggling to follow their dreams — and their hearts — in the cutthroat world of tech startups and venture capital. The series follows savvy visionary Seo Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) and genius programmer Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) on their journey to found a successful machine learning startup, under the guidance of shrewd investor Han Ji-pyeong (Kim Seon-ho). In addition to the typical challenges faced by entrepreneurs of early-stage startups, Dal-mi and Do-san find formidable competition in the startup of Won In Jae (Kang Han-na), Dal-mi’s estranged sister. What makes Start-Up noteworthy is its realistic portrayal of tech startups, ability to tug at heartstrings, and thoughtful exploration of what it really means to “follow your dream.” However, the series is punctuated by an underwhelming romance and strong second lead syndrome.

First, it is clear that when the producers of Start-Up set out to make a show about the world of venture capital and tech start-ups, they did their research. The technical aspects of the series are more believable and detail-oriented than one might expect from a K-drama. The show revolves around Samsan Tech, a start-up consisting of three ragtag but talented developers. Under the guidance of a new CEO, Seo Dal-mi, Samsan Tech wins a hackathon to earn a coveted acceptance into the start-up accelerator Sandbox. As Samsan Tech grows, the company endures many real-world problems faced by founders of early-stage start-ups, such as cutthroat competition, predatory investors, and forced reconciliation of profit versus purpose. The show even ventures into heavier territory, showing that most start-ups are unsuccessful and can destroy friendships, lives, and families. 

Start-Up also does a commendable job making the technology used seem realistic. The show explains machine learning (ML) ideas and terminology to the audience using entertaining analogies. For example, Nam Do-san uses the idea of Tarzan learning Jane’s preferences to explain the concept of ML to Seo Dal-mi. Moreover, the broad applications of ML portrayed in Start-Up are areas of active research and industrial interest today, such as object recognition and autonomous vehicles. More notably, Start-Up alludes to actual technology suitable for these ML applications. In some scenes, there are close-up shots of computer vision starter code on the developers’ screens and presentations containing diagrams of legitimate neural network architectures. This attention to detail shows that actual engineers were consulted in the production of Start-Up, bolstering the show’s authenticity and leaving some viewers learning more about ML than they expected.

Furthermore, the well-written character arcs in Start-Up hit refreshingly close to home, and the emphasis on self-discovery and growth led me to ask myself the same question as the characters on-screen: “what is my dream?” To be specific, each of the main characters begins the series with naive but passionate motivations to start (or help start) a company. As their companies mature, the characters are faced with challenges that make them consider giving up. Instead, these hardships strengthen their resolve, and their dreams evolve along with their start-ups. Through working together as engineers, designers, and mentors, the characters are able to realize their underlying motivations, which may be vastly different from their original goals. 

On top of that, what the series lacks in romance, it more than compensates for in familial love, blood relation or otherwise. I don’t cry often, but Start-Up had me bawling in just the first two episodes. In particular, Seo Dal-mi’s complicated family history and Han Ji-pyeong’s upbringing as an orphan offer ample tearjerker material. Many of the show’s familial relationships revolve around Seo Dal-mi’s halmeoni (Korean for grandmother), a caring, hardworking woman who played a large part in raising Seo Dal-mi and Han Ji-pyeong. Start-Up also excels in portraying the bonds among Samsan Tech team members as they face the highs and lows and risks and rewards of entrepreneurship together. Compelling performances and screenwriting help audiences feel like they’re right there with the characters, struggling to build something meaningful and secure funding under the constant pressure of failure. 

There were, however, moments of Start-Up which were uncomfortable to watch for the wrong reasons. For example, the show normalizes workplace harassment in the relationship between Samsan Tech developer Lee Chul-san and designer Jeong Sa-ha. Chul-san’s persistent, unwelcome romantic advances on Sa-ha are trivialized as comedic relief, and he doggedly continues to pursue Sa-ha in the office, despite numerous rejections. Another instance where harassment is romanticized is Do-san’s decision to follow Dal-mi and wait outside her house after their breakup. This troubling behavior is portrayed not as stalking, but rather as an earnest romantic interest. Both interactions send the disturbing message that people shouldn’t take no for an answer. This problematic writing is not unique to Start-Up, but worth noting.

Speaking of problems with romance in Start-Up, any review of the drama would be incomplete without addressing its central love triangle. K-dramas are no stranger to love triangles, and one of the most defining features of Start-Up is its unusually strong case of Second Lead Syndrome (SLS), K-drama jargon for the condition where fans root for the main character to end up with the second lead rather than with the main love interest. In the case of Start-Up, the show’s SLS has motivated a myriad of essays on Reddit and other online forums about how Seo Dal-mi should have ended up with Han Ji-pyeong rather than Nam Do-san. The unexpected popularity of second lead Han Ji-pyeong could be attributed to the script and actor Kim Seon-ho’s performance, and depending on whether you affiliate with #TeamNDS or #TeamHJP, SLS in Start-Up can make the show frustrating to watch. 

Dubbed as “Good Boy” by Halmeoni, Han Ji-pyeong is a well-written, highly empathizable character who is able to overcome his flaws and grow into a better person over the course of the series. This dynamism is complemented by Kim Seon-ho’s acting, leading to a massive rise in the actor’s popularity following Start-Up’s debut. On the other hand, Nam Do-san is a relatively static character whose adversities and growth pale in comparison to Ji-pyeong’s. The “romance” between Do-san and Dal-mi is initially contrived, superficial, and built on lies, casting a shadow on the rest of their relationship and helping build a case for SLS. An even more convincing argument for SLS is that unlike Do-san, Ji-pyeong has history with Dal-mi as childhood pen pals. The letters they exchanged become a catalyst and focal point for the show’s events. 

All in all, Start-Up is a heartwarming K-drama colored by the exciting world of venture capital and tech start-ups. Throughout this series, viewers may find themselves laughing out loud at Samsan Tech’s antics, crying along with Han Ji-pyeong and Halmeoni, and holding their breath during a pitching competition. Start-Up is able to cleverly build up the team and family dynamics in a way that makes you root for their success. However, the unsatisfying conclusion to the show’s romance may leave viewers unfulfilled. This drama is able to capture the way that many feel early in their career, brimming with uncertainty matched by hope. And with all the uncertainty in the world right now, Start-Up offers the hope that our dreams are always within reach.