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Set in a fictional Seoul tech incubator called Sandbox, this drama is nominally about ambitious young coders and entrepreneurs trying to hatch a viable business plan. Scratch the surface, though, and it’s really a tear-jerking family melodrama with a delicious romance at its heart.
A central love triangle puts a fresh spin on Cyrano de Bergerac, when love letters from a secret admirer lead to a case of mistaken identity. Seo Dal-Mi, raised by her grandmother when her family splits up, is the recipient of the letters, and the fate of the lovers is never truly in doubt: you can go by which leading man gets the more upbeat background music and dreamy lens flare.
Luckily, the perils the characters face in pursuit of start-up success generate enough conflict to keep things interesting. Any onscreen portrayal of hacking or coding has to do two things: maintain narrative tension during montages of people doing computer stuff; and cram in enough tech jargon to be believable without crossing the line into boring or incomprehensible. If the solution to the second problem, a series of subtitles that define tech terms, feels clumsy at times, Start-Up solves the first problem in classic K-drama fashion: by giving its gorgeous young stars a generous amount of screen time.
Most of the looking-intense-while-tapping-keyboard duty falls to Nam Joo-hyuk, who, as Nam Do-San, starts out as a flannel-clad math nerd with crippling self-doubt, but evolves into a handsome serial entrepreneur. Bae Suzy and Kim Seon-ho are equally luminous, as ambitious young Seo Dal-Mi and her sharp-tongued investor and mentor Han Ji-pyeong, making up the other corners of the love triangle.
The plot bogs down a few episodes before the finale, when the three successful and attractive leads inexplicably devote several episodes to wallowing in feelings of unworthiness. But the feel-good finale ultimately satisfies, and it’s veteran actress Kim Hae-sook who steals the show, as Dal-Mi’s gruffly endearing grandmother Ms. Choi.
Some lessons throughout for viewers working inside–or aspiring to build–start-ups. Learn to separate rejection from useful feedback … and don’t take either one personally. Don’t waste buzz, don’t squander momentum, but also don’t brush problems under the rug. And finally, learn from your failures, and don’t let them stop you.
Every great success starts small. But if you don’t fix the bugs in the source code, they can come back to haunt you later—in life and in start-ups.
Find a grumpy-but-affectionate grandmother figure, and make sure you have plenty of Kleenex.
Rumor has it that Season 2 is in the works.