“Are you an asshole?”
That’s the first question Uber co-founder and CEO Travis “TK” Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) asks a prospective employee in the initial minutes of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, the new seven-episode anthology series from Showtime based on Mike Isaac’s best selling book of the same name.
Surprisingly, it’s a relevant question as TK loves to hire contemptible jerks. In Episode 4, he even says to a disgruntled employee, “If I fired every asshole who works here, there’d be no one left.” To be fair to TK, morally ambiguous people will get the job done. They can be loyal, hardworking sycophants who do whatever they’re told. They also tend to be sexist, homophobic, party-until-you-puke dude bros who thrive in toxic work environments. But these shoot first, ask questions never types are exactly the people TK wants to surround himself with.
The story of Super Pumped is fascinating, with a cast clearly up to the challenge of telling its compelling story, which has the feel of a serialized version of The Social Network. Kyle Chandler is stellar as Texas investor Bill Gurley who might have finally met a founder he can’t handle. Gurley’s frustration with TK is palpable, which is clear from every line Chandler deftly delivers. Gordon-Levitt is at his absolute best. Travis Kalanick is a complex individual, and Gordon-Levitt manages to brilliantly blend the allure, ego and woefully poor decision making of the Uber co-founder into a person that viewers will both root for and against.
Uber hires scoundrels because TK is one. Game recognizes game. This can be a good thing as oftentimes it takes someone cocky, flashy, and brash to do something great. Scoundrels can also be charismatic, just ask Han Solo. And it takes a lot of charisma, especially in a hyper-competitive environment like Silicon Valley, to have a legion of followers do your bidding. Scoundrels usually exude a smarmy charm. They’re dangerous but likable, which draws people to them. But being a scoundrel is also typically short-lived.
TK is the epitome of a scoundrel when we first meet him. He plays roughshod with some long-established rules, but so does everyone when they’re pushing against the status quo. TK is also an underdog. He’s battling against taxi and limousine commissions, journalists who don’t understand his vision, and even the perception inside his own family that he’s an underachiever. When your brother is a firefighter and you’re an entrepreneur loudly announcing you’re going to be the next Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg, one son seems like a hero and the other an unrealistic dreamer.
A scoundrel is also who Gurley encounters in the first few episodes of Super Pumped and he’s intrigued by what he sees. An experienced investor, Gurley knows how challenging it is to deal with someone who has willed a business sector into existence. He’s also mindful with his money, which is why Gurley views all of his founders as cult leaders because of their devout following. His goal is to make a fortune before founders destroy themselves, which proves to be prophetic.
Initially, Gurley and TK have a solid relationship, with Chandler and Gordon-Levitt skillfully creating a big brother/little brother onscreen dynamic. They gently pull and push each other throughout each episode. However, much like most brothers, there eventually has to be a reckoning. The “little” brother usually pushes back against real or perceived slights and control, and as TK demonstrates time and again, no one can control him.
Other well-written characters help flesh out the unique story: Kerry Bishe as TK’s underappreciated fourth employee Austin Geidt; Hank Azaria as Apple CEO Tim Cook; Eva Victor as software engineer Susan Fowler—all shine in illustrating the devastating impact of TK’s myopic leadership.
While the acting is first rate, the driving force behind Super Pumped is in the way its layered relationships are written. Developing those tensions with practiced expertise is a trio of Billions alumni: Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Beth Schachter, who write, produce and showrun on the series.
The influence of Billions filters down to the cast as well, and fans are sure to recognize several veterans from that show in this new series. Super Pumped has also adopted the elder Showtime series’ rapid fire dialogue, penchant for celebrity cameos, and love of esoteric pop culture references. Your knowledge of the Triangle Offense, JD Salinger and The Untouchables better be up to par. And if you don’t understand why something makes Silent Bob as chatty as Tracy Flick, just enjoy the killer soundtrack that features The Clash, Stevie Nicks and plenty of Pearl Jam.
But familiar to all viewers should be Uber itself, and the company’s evolution is tracked throughout the series. It grows from a taxi service to a ride sharing company. It moves across the country and eventually much of the world (except China). We see the company make a groundbreaking investment deal with Google. Uber is a Silicon Valley unicorn.
However, the fortunes of Uber are inversely proportional to the fortunes of TK. Over the course of the first five episodes available for review, the once likable scoundrel turns into a self-destructive narcissist. On TK’s orders the company spies on users, spitefully tanks an Uber buyout of Lyft, and an insistence on a “frictionless” experience continues to alienate drivers as he refuses to allow tipping.
Just when you think TK might just be able to right the ship, even after an in-depth look at Uber’s culture of sexual misconduct, Arianna Huffington (Uma Thurman) arrives, pats him on his head and tells TK he’s awesome. Encouraged to double down, TK’s refusal to bend or follow any kind of rules can lead to only one conclusion.
Telling the story of Uber is fraught with peril. In the wrong hands, it’s a complex mess filled with technobabble and an insider’s view of the world of venture capitalism most people aren’t familiar with or even care about. Thankfully, Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber does what, at first glance, seems as challenging as finding a reasonable fare on Uber on New Year’s Eve. It allows a star-studded cast to tell an entertaining story, warts and all, of one of the most successful and controversial tech startups in U.S. history. And it’s not an asshole about it.
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber premieres February 27th on Showtime.
Terry Terrones is a Television Critics Association and Critics Choice Association member, licensed drone pilot and aspiring hand model.
When he’s not ordering from Uber Eats, you can find him hiking in the mountains of Colorado. You can follow him on Twitter @terryterrones.
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