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Joseph Gordon-Levitt stars in this series about the rise and fall of former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick
The Social Network, director David Fincher's epochal 2010 movie about the founding of Facebook, begins and ends with Mark Zuckerberg (Jesse Eisenberg) confronting the fact that he might be an asshole. With all these years of hindsight and over a decade of even worse acts of malfeasance and negligence from the company now known as Meta, the movie's judgment of Zuck is pretty quaint; if you look at the list of controversial things his company has done, "asshole" is a pretty mild epithet for him.
The new Social Network-esque series Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber benefits from the Big Tech backlash over the past several years. There's no question about whether or not Uber co-founder and now-former CEO Travis Kalanick, played with hucksterish gusto by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, is an asshole. He announces it in the show's very first line. "So you want to work for Uber," he says to a job interviewee. "I have one question for you: Are you an asshole?" Kalanick, you see, is a proud asshole. He wants to destroy anyone and anything that stands in the way of his rideshare company becoming a tech industry behemoth like Apple or Google: competitors, government regulators, journalists, female employees who complain about being harassed at work, the concept of privacy, basic human decency. And he encourages the same kind of asshole-ishness in the people who work for him. Super Pumped is a story about how being an asshole can make a person successful but will lead to their destruction.
The anthology series is based on a 2019 book by New York Times reporter Mike Isaac*, which charts the ascent of Uber from its origins as a scrappy black cab-hailing startup doing battle with San Francisco's taxi industry and municipal government to an established global company worth billions of dollars, plagued by self-created scandals every step of the way. The show is written by Billions creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, along with Billions executive producer Beth Schacter. While Billions draws inspiration from real finance industry and political figures to tell an entirely fictitious story, Super Pumped finds Koppelman and Levien dramatizing a true story in a way that's even more stylized than their other show.
The characters talk like they're on Billions, dropping the rapid-fire cultural references that are Koppelman and Levien's bread and butter (Kalanick's views are shaped by The Godfather as much as they are by The Fountainhead) and tearing into slick lines like "You're not owed anything except returns, which I will give you." But then it gets even more heightened than Billions with the addition of mildly surrealist, Big Short-style flourishes like the action freezing in order for narrator Quentin Tarantino to fast-talk some color commentary over the scene, or a Grand Theft Auto-inspired animated segment explaining Uber's strategy for expanding into New York City, culminating in a boss battle knife fight with Mayor Bill de Blasio. It also has a very fun, show-offy supporting cast, including Fred Armisen as a Portland transportation bureaucrat and Uma Thurman as Uber board member Arianna Huffington.
Super Pumped differs from Billions in that can't be accused of glorifying the rich assholes it depicts. Billions' Bobby Axelrod (Damian Lewis) may be a white collar criminal who is compelled to destroy his opponents at all costs, but he's a brilliant, charismatic guy who's loyal to his people and is fun to be around, so you can't help but like him. Super Pumped's Travis Kalanick, on the other hand, is awful. He's a slimy schemer who lies to everyone in his life, from his girlfriends to his business partners to the public, and doesn't care about anything except growing Uber and crushing his enemies. His fake smile fades off his face the second it's no longer needed. His ascent to power doesn't even seem like any fun, as Uber's bacchanalian parties come off as gross, and most of the time he's just in his office having tense conversations with people who want him to stop doing whatever he's doing. The show is heavily influenced by Martin Scorsese movies like The Wolf of Wall Street and Goodfellas, but by design there's no Copacabana scene that makes Kalanick's life seem seductive.
Depicting Kalanick as a one-dimensional villain gives Super Pumped moral clarity at the expense of depth and nuance. The show kind of glosses over the ways that Kalanick is a creation of Silicon Valley. He's a symptom of a culture that rewards the greediest, most ruthless men for the risks they take with other people's money. On the show, he's barely human, which is not a knock on Gordon-Levitt's performance, which is fiery and dialed in. I haven't read Isaac's book or met the real Travis Kalanick, so I can't say that he isn't this odious in real life. But he must be a more complicated person than the fully hollow man he's depicted as on the show, where his only real characteristic is ambition. Super Pumped is part of a wave of series all coming out at around the same time about charismatic businesspeople committing various degrees of fraud, and Netflix's Inventing Anna does a better job of trying to understand its central antihero. Or maybe, as Super Pumped seems to suggest, what you see with Travis Kalanick is what you get.
But Travis Kalanick is part of a broken system that Super Pumped doesn't explore much. The show's moral center is Bill Gurley, a venture capitalist played by Kyle Chandler, who previously played the only honest person in The Wolf of Wall Street. Chandler's persona is always one of decency, and even though Gurley is the one who's uncomfortable with Kalanick's ethical lapses and poor judgment, he still invested in him in the first place. In the moment the show gets closest to indicting Gurley, the supposed grown-up in the room, for his role in creating the Uber monster, the investor compares tech founders like Kalanick to cult leader David Koresh, who led his followers to their deaths. "The trick is to flee the cult and get out of the compound the second before they burn it to the ground," he says.
Super Pumped is imperfect, but it's mostly successful. It's a fast-paced and entertaining story of an Icarus you can't wait to see fall. It's like a Silicon Valley version of The Wolf of Wall Street that keeps its subject at a distance so you never start to sympathize with him. The series keeps you from understanding Kalanick as a person, but you fully understand him as a symbol of greed and an industry run amok. And that's a more important thing to understand anyway.
*Super Pumped has already been renewed for a second season, to be based on Mike Isaac's forthcoming book about Facebook. Mark Zuckerberg will be getting the full asshole treatment.
Premieres: Sunday, Feb. 27 at 10/9c on Showtime
Who's in it: Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kyle Chandler, Elisabeth Shue, Kerry Bishé, Uma Thurman
Who's behind it: Brian Koppelman and David Levien, creators of Billions
For fans of: Billions, The Wolf of Wall Street, hating tech bros
How many episodes we watched: 5 (out of 8 total in Season 1)