Start-Up | Series Review

This is one of the few nice surprises of 2020.

Pitch Deck

(a presentation that covers all aspects of your business in a succinct and exciting way)

Start-Up’s story introduction was similar to that of a “pitch deck.” It’s so effective that the characters each gained committed and passionate “investors.”

Who wouldn’t, tbh? The “point A” of the four main leads were very relatable and we couldn’t help but cheer for them and wish them to successfully arrive in their respective “point B.”

Seo Dal-mi (Bae Suzy) had a rough start just like other female K-drama leads. Her mother left her, her relationship with her sister soured, and then she lost her father in a tragic accident. She hit rock bottom multiple times which made her resilient to failures and adaptive to changes. A quality she never probably realized would be much use for her in order to beat her sister Won In-jae (Kang Han-na).

In-jae, unlike Dal-mi, chose the “realist” route of choosing her mother instead of her poor and seemingly hopeless father. Things look better for her on the surface. She had a rich stepfather and she’s the CEO of her own company. Seems perfect right? But as her side of the story unraveled, we discovered how she tolerated her stepfather and other people’s comments that belittle her success.  

And so when Dal-mi and In-jae’s paths crossed again, a rivalry between them started. Dal-mi wanted to be as successful as her sister and become a CEO on her own. While In-jae wanted to prove she really got the skills and start her business from scratch. They were pegged as rivaling sisters at first but as it turned out they were each other’s motivation. In-jae, in fact, was what Dal-mi needed to fine-tune her potential as a good business leader. 

Speaking of motivations, Nam Do-san (Nam Joo-hyuk) lacked one and he didn’t even know it. He was sailing without a map and he has been trying to deny this fact by using his business plan as an “I have my life together” façade. He was as lost as Dal-mi but at least Dal-mi knew how to use her strength to get out of her own labyrinth. Do-san, on the other hand, needed some steering and that’s what Dal-mi gave him. With Dal-mi, Do-san finally found a dream of his own. It seems so simple for a genius like Do-san but that’s what I like about him. He sees a great picture and cherishes its every small detail no matter how imperfect it seems. He’s the type of character who appreciates the process more than the result. 

Han Ji-pyeong, on the other hand, relishes on successful results. He never bother to invest anything when he sees zero potential for success. He’s a no-nonsense type of person and is brutally honest to anyone. He’s toughened by his childhood experiences but there’s one person that makes him always willingly relent – Choi Won-deok (Kim Hae-sook). 

Halmeoni’s small favor to Ji-pyeong was the start of how the lives of these four characters got tangled. And I must say that little white lie about the letters was a good plot point for the first arc. It established the characters’ starting point and hinted at their possible fates. It was also a good tension builder like a hanging bomb waiting to explode and rattle the status quo of our main leads. And when this first plot point dropped, it did shook the already established relationships of Do-san, Dal-mi, and Ji-pyeong. On the other hand, Dal-mi and In-jae’s subplot felt a bit underwhelming with the brewing love triangle overshadowing every other side story. Good thing, the supporting acts still stood out despite the overwhelming focus on the romantic plotline. 

Do-san with the rest of the SamSan Tech geeks Kim Yong-san (Kim Do-wan) and Lee Chul-san (Yoo Su-bin) made an adorable trio. I love how socially awkward they are but will always save the day with their superb programming skills. Another common thing about them that I like is their love for simple things. They get excited with snack bar and nice desks than their possible multi-million paychecks and contracts (okay, okay, I concur that Chul-san, the vlogger, always fantasizes to go global). Most of the time, this trio just wants to enjoy doing the things they want to do without worrying about the future.

Adding a more balance of color to our bright RGB trio is the sophisticated Jung Sa-ha (Stephanie Lee). I like how she often scoffs at the silliness of SamSan and Dal-mi but she respects their work and passion anyway. I also like how Dal-mi isn’t intimidated by Sa-ha’s aloofness and how Dal-mi won her over by showing how capable she is. I sometimes think they had more quality screen time than Dal-mi and In-jae in the first half, which was a shame because I was looking forward to the sisters’ subplot.

The first arc ended when Dal-mi found out about the lie and the story shifted from banking on external conflicts to characters dealing with their internal conflicting feelings. 

First Mover Advantage

(an insurmountable advantage gained by the first significant company to move into a new market)

If summed up, Start-Up’s premise involves already tried-and-tested formulae. The stories of the characters simply look like this: hardworking girl tries to achieve her dream; underdog genius wants to be successful; frank rich guy meets his match; perfect rich girl’s life turned upside down. Meanwhile, the romance aspect involves these tropes: pretend boyfriend/relationship; tiring love triangle; and cute second couple.

Sounds too cliché right? But something is refreshing about how Start-Up executed these elements that it didn’t felt boring at all and instead, made the series a pleasant weekend watch. And I believe that “something” is the effective actors, good storyline execution, and intentional mix-ups in the character hierarchies.

And yes, the mix-up is intentional. You thought Ji-pyeong’s the main lead even though the promos were top-billed by Nam Joo-hyuk and Suzy, right? It confuses some viewers but again, it’s intentional. I had a good conversation about this with @busyahjussi, and he perfectly pointed out that Start-Up is an anomaly in the hierarchy of characters we have grown accustomed to. 

As I’ve said, Start-Up’s characters, if objectively seen, are the usual archetypal characters. Dal-mi is the passionate and hardworking poor female lead. The male characters, on the other hand, didn’t get the position that their predecessor archetypes usually get. A rich male character with a tragic story and a childhood connection with the female lead is usually the main male lead while the naïve nice guy is usually relegated as the second lead. But Park Hye-ryeon decided it’s time to spice it up a bit and well, as she said through Dal-mi, some Janes prefer other types of Tarzans.

And this shouldn’t have been confusing after the second episode. It’s obvious that Dal-mi and Do-san is the endgame because Do-san has the “first-mover advantage.” Do-san is the one who made the first step towards Dal-mi while Ji-pyeong remained on the sidelines; just like other second male leads. 

Anyway, the second arc of the story ramped up the love triangle more. And although we’ve also seen more of their individual progress, the spotlight was still on the romantic line. As one Facebook user pointed out in her viral post, Start-Up should have been more than just a romantic story. 

Exit Strategy 

(is how you plan to sell your company to give you and your investors a return on their investment)

I didn’t expect a time-skip on the finale arc. I also didn’t expect that it would be because of Alex Kwon (Jasper Cho) of 2STO!!!

If you’ve been a follower of our blog for a while now, you probably know that we unanimously dislike unnecessary time skips. If the use of it was justifiable, then I’ll let it go but I think, the time skip here in Start-Up was a bit unnecessary. I know, the characters, particularly, Dal-mi and Do-san needed some time to come to terms with their internal problems but three years was too long. Especially because the changes we saw in the last few episodes weren’t that much. However, I still consider the concluding episode as fitting. The characters we fell in love with arrived at their expected “point B.”

Dal-mi learned to balance her passion and ideals with her realities. Using the ups and downs of her experience with SamSan Tech, she was able to become more mature and responsible with her decisions as CEO. She was also able to mend her relationship with In-jae. Although, I still believe their relationship should really have gotten more screen time. Especially for In-jae. At least though, I’ve got to see her reunion with halmeoni. 

Speaking of halmeo, Kim Hae-sook is my runaway favorite actress for this year. She was lovable in Hospital Playlist and here in Start-Up; despite her two characters being so different from each other. She helped Dal-mi, Do-san, and especially Ji-pyeong shine in their respective roles. 

Now with Ji-pyeong. I was really excited with his character arc. I believe they could have developed him more, especially with the Yong-san’s brother plot line. That could have been a very good turning point for Ji-pyeong. Instead, it just felt a bit bland. But still, Ji-pyeong had a good run. In the end, he realized that what he wanted was a home with a warm home-cooked dinner not a house with a view of the Han river. He realized that his decisions wouldn’t always lead to “profit”. Sometimes his decision would lead him to losses and damages. And that those losses and damages that hurt him weren’t caused by external factors (Dalmi, Halmi, and Dosan). It was caused by him. But that doesn’t mean he should stop “investing.” He just have to find the right person for him to invest his feelings in.

What I also like about the closure of Ji-pyeong’s storyline was that he finally realized the letters were just part of their past. He thought before that if only Dalmi discovered that he wrote the letters from years back, she’d choose him. What Jipyeong didn’t realize was that Dalmi fell in love with the person he created through that letter and not himself. Yes, he showed some sincerity in those letters but it was still all a lie. It’s like this: fiction is still fiction even if the writer poured out his sincerest emotion in it. When you read a book, you fell in love with the character, not the writer himself. Jipyeong felt entitled for a while because he thought he has a shot with Dalmi as her “first love” but that “first love” didn’t really exist in real life.

Hence, the arguments questioning the sudden change in Dal-mi’s feelings when she was obsessively attached to the letters for 15 years doesn’t hold water. Her feelings for Do-san is the kind of love that doesn’t need any preconditions. She fell for Do-san for who he is without buts, in-spite-of’s, and despite-of’s. 

Busyahjussi also pointed this one out: Dal-mi and Do-san’s character plots are similar. They’re both trying to follow their dreams; a bit more idealist and escapist than that of In-jae’s and Ji-pyeong’s. Nam Do-san, for his part, had to realize first what his dream really is. He has been blindly following everyone’s words without looking at what he wanted in life. He wasn’t sure of himself even though, as Dal-mi pointed out, he is a rare precious man that deserves a bigger stage to shine. 

Do-san needed the push and competition with Ji-pyeong to realize he’s the main lead of his story – not anyone else. One of his main issues was his self-confidence. But in the end, he learned to stand tall without changing too much. He’s still the type of character who shows his vulnerable side without reservation but knows when to stand and protect himself. This is what I also love about Do-san. He shatters the stereotype that men shouldn’t show emotions. Do-san really proved that K-drama male leads shouldn’t always be the emotionless-sometimes-borderline-jerks we used to watch. 

Maknae’s Verdict

The premiere week of Start-Up set my expectations for it a bit higher than it could reach. There were some let downs but its good moments upstaged whatever expectation they failed to meet. Start-Up, just like its title and theme, introduced new ways of using things we’ve grown accustomed to. It wasn’t necessarily innovative but they really took risk on changing bits and pieces of cliché tropes and character types. It’s biggest strength, though, was the actors who breathe life to these very lovable characters. Fans wouldn’t be attached to them so passionately if not for the effective performance of Bae Suzy, Nam Joo-hyuk, Kim Seon-ho, and Kang Han-na. The supporting acts, particularly Kim Hae-sook and Kim Joo-hoon, are outstanding as well. Overall, Start-Up brought a lot of fun to my usually mundane weekends.


-SamSan Tech is hands down my favorite trio this 2020.

-I was hoping IU would make a cameo since she’s friends with the Kang Han-na, Suzy, and Nam Joo-hyuk. Not to mention she both worked with the writer and director of the show. But at least, I got this Yeo Jin-goo cameo!

-Thank you Start-Up for introducing me to variety gem Kim Seon-ho.

-I’ve been crushing on Cho Tae-kwon since his Descendants of the Sun/Terius Behind Me days. Alex Kwon will not be on my good book though. This traitor!

-Can I see more of Kim Do-wan in the future, please? 

Credit: Embedded Videos [The Swoon YT channel]
Terms and Definition for Sub-headings: [1, 2]
Images: [tvN]

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