“So, you want to work for Uber. I have one question for you: Are you an asshole?”
That’s the first thing that Joseph Gordon-Levitt, as Uber CEO Travis Kalanick, says in Showtime’s Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, which traces the ride-sharing service’s mad, morally compromised dash toward success in the 2010s. It’s a standard line of inquiry for Travis, or TK, as his colleagues call him, one that, as we learn before the first episode ends, anyone hoping to get hired should respond to with a yes. That’s because Travis is an asshole, and his right-hand man Emil Michael (Babak Tafti) is an asshole, and practically everyone working at this scrappy start-up, staffed mostly by dudes, is an asshole, too. Wow, a bunch of ethically sketchy, hyperambitious guys working in a toxic environment are a bunch of jerks: Who would have thought? Oh, everyone? Everyone would have thought?
In Travis Kalanick’s mind, only a true asshole possesses the ruthlessness required to build a successful business, which is exactly the kind of attitude you’d expect an arrogant self-proclaimed disruptor like Travis Kalanick to have. That’s part of the problem with this intermittently compelling, uneven season, part one of a planned anthology series that will focus on culturally significant corporate sagas. (Season two is set to tackle the relationship between Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg and Sheryl Sandberg.) While the Uber narrative, based here on the book Super Pumped by New York Times technology correspondent Mike Isaac, is certainly dramatic, twisty, and friction-filled, it never feels fully surprising as a piece of television. That may be because as an audience, we already know the details, or at least the broad strokes, of what happened in the early days of this company that flouted rules, regulations, and privacy protections in order to raise its profile and revenue. But even those unfamiliar with that history may sense where the season is going based on the familiar notes Super Pumped strikes.
As overseen by showrunners Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Beth Schacter, all of whom work on Billions — Koppelman and Levien co-created that series with Andrew Ross Sorkin — Super Pumped is at its best when it places a bunch of oversize egos in a room and lets their furious, fast-paced dialogue ping-pong off of each other, an approach not dissimilar to the Billions model. The music choices, which rely heavily on Pearl Jam and other ’90s fare, are pretty Billions-y as well. Showtime seems to understand this; the series, which debuts Sunday night, is slotted to air immediately after Billions.
But the series also departs from Billions by conspicuously swinging its stylistic dick around in a way that seems intended to mirror the overconfident posture of its protagonist. Unfortunately, those flourishes register more as try-hard behavior than actual swagger. There are fantastical sequences that turn conference-room arguments into video-game battles. Certain characters show up onscreen with great, testosterone-fueled fanfare, their nicknames or identity signifiers splashed across the screen in all caps. The first time Travis talks about Bill Gurley, a key Uber investor who tries to rein in his often-paranoid, control-freak partner, Gurley, played by Kyle Chandler, is shown with the words “Shot Caller” splayed across his chest. In a later episode, when David Bonderman, founder of investment firm TPG Capital, is introduced, the words DAVID FUCKING BONDERMAN — again, all caps —surround his image. It’s a move taken directly from Adam McKay’s bag of filmmaking tricks, as is the choice to have several characters speak directly to camera in episode five.
One could also rightly accuse Super Pumped, at times, of wanting to come off as a film by Quentin Tarantino, especially since Tarantino himself actually narrates portions of the show. He’s the guy who says “shot caller” and “David fucking Bonderman.” He also says this of Arianna Huffington, played by a Greek-accented Uma Thurman: “This is not somebody that says the first thing that pops into her cabeza, daddy-o.” Yes, I cringed a little just repeating that. Most of the time, these big-swing moments seem less Tarantino-esque and more like the work of someone who used to have a Pulp Fiction poster hanging above his dorm-room bed.
The majority of Super Pumped, however, takes place within a more traditional premium-cable drama context, with actors who are trying their best to tease out shades of gray within personalities that can seem pretty black-and-white. Gordon-Levitt has the tallest order as Travis, a founder whose tenacity is impressive but who only comes across as having the potential to be good because he’s been told he’s a good man by many of the women in his life: his girlfriends Angie (Annie Chang) and, later, Gabi (Bridgett Gao-Hollitt), mother Bonnie (Elisabeth Shue, who I firmly contend is too young to play Gordon-Levitt’s mom), and eventual mentor Huffington. Most of the time, Travis talks in start-up speak or overconfident proclamations. “Fuck Google,” he says at one point — even though Google has invested millions in his company — “Those guys are the Establishment. We’re the renegades.” When he’s not green-lighting schemes to hide Uber’s insidious, privacy-invading code within the Apple app store, he’s vocalizing his concerns about being undermined by perceived enemies, from competitors like Lyft to people like Bill Gurley, who are on Travis’s team.
Basically, he’s an exhausting guy to be around, and Gordon-Levitt leans into that, making him persuasively obsessive, overcaffeinated, and impulsive. But because Gordon-Levitt is doing his job correctly, the series can’t quite get around the fact that Travis is not someone you really want to spend time with for eight episodes. (Critics were given five in advance.) He’s much more tolerable and interesting when he’s being challenged, which is why his scenes with Bill provide some of the best moments of the season. Chandler plays the venture capitalist as the polar opposite of Travis; he is low-key where Travis is high-strung, measured where Travis is overdramatic. He also, by nature, radiates a coach Eric Taylor decency that’s sorely needed in this climate.
The show is better when Chandler is there to temper the overwhelming tech-bro-ness of it all. It’s also better when other Uber characters get to take center stage for a bit. As Austin Geidt, Uber’s fourth employee and recruiter and rallier of drivers, Halt and Catch Fire alum Kerry Bishé highlights the complexities of being a female leader who recognizes the misogyny and harassment running rampant through the company yet loves her job too much to do anything about it. A show about Uber from her perspective: That would have felt like a fresh take on the start-up story.
But even though many Americans may look at someone like Kalanick with some level of disdain, it’s these brash, iconoclastic founder types that keep capturing the cultural imagination. For evidence, look no further than the upcoming TV schedule, which offers a limited series about Theranos and the con artist behind it, Elizabeth Holmes (Hulu’s The Dropout), and another limited series about the rise of WeWork (WeCrashed on Apple TV+). Super Pumped makes the case that figures like Kalanick pride themselves on pushing boundaries so much that they decide boundaries don’t need to exist. And that’s interesting to explore, up to a point. But exploring that flawed, morally unmoored worldview also results in regurgitating messages that TV shows and movies about the business world have been telegraphing for decades. I’m not sure how many times we need to hear that greed corrupts, but Super Pumped seems convinced that song is worth playing one more time.
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