Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber Series-Premiere Recap: The City Has Been Taken

Super Pumped

Grow or Die
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars

Super Pumped

Grow or Die
Season 1 Episode 1
Editor’s Rating 4 stars
Photo: Jessica Brooks/SHOWTIME

“Once we get them in our car, we can charge whatever we want the next time.”

That’s the thesis of “Grow or Die,” the caffeinated first episode of Super Pumped, Showtime’s eight-episode limited series on the rideshare service Uber. It comes up first in the office of Uber CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a practiced line worked into a fevered soliloquy about ride safety — an issue that irritates him right up until the moment he learns the company can make money off it. A variation of the line surfaces again in a flashback to 2011, when Travis is touting the “stickiness” of the service to Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), a venture capitalist with the resources and know-how to expand the business to a global scale. “If someone rides twice,” says Travis, “we have them for life.”

Travis is a master of a specific form of Silicon Valley jujitsu: Selling a consumer base of Bay Area progressives on ideas of liberation and disruption while Trojan-horsing rapacious capitalism. He’s a late-19th century robber baron in a charcoal sports jacket and expensive sneakers, eager to exploit a consumer base that he’s mobilizing to destroy a preexisting business. (Or “space,” in Silicon Valley-speak.) Bill later likens the service to a heroin dealer giving a free taste to a user to get him hooked and make money off his addiction later. He understands that cheap, “frictionless” experiences for riders and fat incentives for drivers will cost him a fortune up front, but eventually, the rides will cost a fortune, and drivers will have a much harder time making the nut. When Travis frets later about asking for more cash, he needn’t have worried. Bill gets it.

The creators of Super Pumped, Brian Koppelman and David Levien, know the terrain well. Their long-running Showtime series Billions is about the brilliant minds and coarsened souls of Type-A sharks in sneakers, and this show, adapted from Mike Isaac’s book, hums along at the same rarefied frequency. Like Damian Lewis’ Axe in Billions, Travis is a charismatic animal who weaponizes his supreme self-confidence, whether that means firing up the troops or bullying the regulators or other government officials who stand in his way. Koppelman and Levien also understand him as a confidence man, not unlike Edward Norton’s card shark in their script for Rounders, a slickster willing to cut every possible corner to get the win — only he doesn’t have the same raffish charm. He’s transparently a killer, even as Gordon-Levitt provides him with a friendly face.

But he has to grow into being a killer, and “Grow Or Die” is about that growth as much as it’s about turning a local outfit called Ubercab into the world-beating ride-sharing app known more simply as Uber. (Travis settling on the shorter name so closely mirrors the “Drop the ‘the,’ it’s cleaner” scene in The Social Network that it feels like a deliberate hat tip.) The Travis who sweats over going to Bill for a fresh cash infusion is not yet the killer he would become, but he has the initiative and he’s a quick study. The show frames him, rather pitifully, as a son locked in a rivalry with his firefighter brother Cory (Mishka Thébaud) over his parents’ approval and love. But that seems like another layer of skin that’s due for molting, like one of Patrick Bateman’s facial masks in American Psycho.

The existential crisis facing Travis in this major inflection point for Ubercab is a fight with Randall Pearson (Richard Schiff), the city’s transportation head, who’s deep in the pockets of taxi and livery business. Pearson wants to protect the powerful cab business from a serious existential threat of its own, and Super Pumped isn’t any keener to make him look like a knight in shining armor as Billions is to make Paul Giamatti’s Chuck in a crusading district attorney. Travis implies, not without reason, that Pearson is too ethically compromised to referee this fight. And Travis is also wagering, with that aggressive self-confidence of his, that Uber is the future and taxicabs are a horse-and-buggy system standing in the way of progress.

With Pearson hitting Ubercab with massive fines and cease-and-desist orders, Travis and his team has to get creative. And in a true faux-progressive Bay Area scheme, he decides to turn his customers into activists. The mayor may not want to listen to a smug visionary out to crush an established business, but he might listen to voters who make their voices heard in pyramid boxes of petitions and in an organized demonstration outside City Hall. Travis is an excellent talker and salesman, and he pitches to the ego of a mayor who doesn’t want to be on the wrong side of history. “The city has been taken!” he screams in triumph after he’s won, proof that open offices exist, in part, for all-hands applauding of the CEO.

“Grow or Die” ends with the introduction of another major character, Emil Michael (Babak Tafti), who Bill foists into Travis’s inner circle after bailing out the company. Emil proves himself to his suspicious new boss by calmly assessing the fines Ubercab still owes the city and suggesting that maybe the company isn’t in the cab business at all, since those fines were issued by cab regulators. Hence the euphemism “ridesharing.” Hence the name Uber. The confidence man slips the trap.

Off The Meter

• The “dun-colored mare” reference comes from J.D. Salinger’s two-novella anthology Raise High the Roof Beam, Carpenters and Seymour: An Introduction. It’s from a Taoist story-within-a-story about the search for a “superlative horse, one that raises no dust and leaves no tracks.” The searcher, Kao, seeks the essential: “Intent on the inward qualities, he loses sight of the external. Anyway, Travis’s girlfriend is right that Travis will be fine wearing the same nondescript-yet-expensive garb as every other founder in Silicon Valley.

• The company that made Kalanick wary of investor-founder relationships — as dramatized in that scene with former Hollywood titan Michael Ovitz (John Michael Higgins) — is Scour, a pre-Napster file-sharing service that turned to Ovitz for investment and wound up on the losing end of a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

• That story Travis tells about LeBron James taking the bus from the projects to turn down a $10 million check from Reebok because he understood his value is mostly true, save for the bus part. James tells the story on an episode of Uninterrupted’s Kneading Dough podcast and says he flew out for the meeting. It’s in character for Travis to tweak the story to make it that much more dramatic.

• What a joy to see Kerry Bishé, co-star of the brilliant Halt and Catch Fire, return to the tech-TV space here as a manager of driver relations.

• Comparisons to The Social Network may be inevitable, but this series (and Travis’s rogue operation) owes much more to The Wolf of Wall Street.

• The song that closes the show, “First We Take Manhattan,” is an R.E.M. cover of a Leonard Cohen song. It’s a deeeeeeeep cut for devotees of R.E.M., who covered it for the Cohen tribute album I’m Your Fan. Koppelman is just such a devotee.

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber Series-Premiere Recap