“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” starts with a simple question: “Are you an asshole?” Then-CEO of Uber Travis Kalanick (played with apt exuberance by Joseph Gordon-Levitt) poses the question to a prospective hire, mid job interview. The young man is a bit thrown, but he’s given a temporary reprieve when two of Travis’ top staffers storm in with an emergency: There’s a growing perception that Uber doesn’t care about passenger safety. Drivers are making passengers uncomfortable. Some are breaking the law. Still, Travis doesn’t see why it’s a problem, and it’s certainly not his problem, but the point of the impromptu meeting isn’t to solve a problem. It’s to make more money.
“TK, you’re gonna love my nuts,” says Quentin (Noah Weisberg), before pitching the Safe Rides Fee: a surcharge added to each trip to cover added costs of ensuring safety… except Uber isn’t taking any extra measures to ensure safety. Paired with a cheap safety video made for drivers, the fee just provides the illusion of care, while bringing in hundreds of millions in profit for Uber. “Wow, I do love your nuts,” Travis responds.
If it’s not abundantly clear how Matt, the hoodie-clad job applicant, is supposed to answer the question, the premiere provides an explicit answer. Only assholes can make it at Uber, Travis claims, and there are assholes as far as the eye can see throughout “Super Pumped” Season 1. What else is there — Kyle Chandler playing a mentor who compares himself to a coach, Kerry Bishé dealing with sexist tech dudes, Quentin Tarantino providing sporadic voice-of-God narration — often calls to mind past TV favorites (Austin’s all-time father figure even wears a Longhorns T-shirt and speaks at SXSW), but it rarely ventures beyond recapping recent history by way of reminding audiences what rich assholes can get away with in America.
Based on Mike Isaac’s 2019 book of the same name, “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” cuts to the chase. It’s 2011. Uber hasn’t broken big yet, but it’s up and running. So Travis sets a meeting with Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), an investor at the respected venture capital firm Benchmark, seeking funding for expansion. The two men have a few drinks, ask a few questions, and sneak in a few tests: Bill feigns like he’s too drunk to drive home, and Travis swoops in with a quick and easy Uber pick-up. Travis calls Bill out for not-so-secretly testing the service, and Bill reveals he expected Travis to be ready, or he wouldn’t be the man for the job. Macho posturing behind them, they form a partnership. Travis gets his money, Bill gets his unicorn.
But it’s evident from the start they won’t remain simpatico forever. “I’ll listen,” Travis tells Bill in their initial meeting. “And I’ll take good ideas. But I won’t take orders. I can’t.” While that’s fine by Bill — he sees himself as a helping hand (or a coach), not a persistent dictator — Travis (TK to his friends) is young, impulsive, and obsessed. Soon, he’s throwing $25 million company retreats in Vegas, where he pays to cover-up illegal behavior with company checks; he’s using riders’ personal information to dodge fines; he’s making sexist comments to the press and rejecting responsibility left and right.
Early on, “Super Pumped” emphasizes Bill’s concerns for Uber aren’t in the service itself, but in Travis’ ability to grow into a successful CEO. This frames the show as an examination of Travis, both as a man and a leader, while Bill serves as his de facto work dad. For a while, the two share a definition of success based on monetary gains. But as Travis’ screw-ups mount rather than dissipate, Bill is the only one willing to discipline his out-of-control child — or, he’s the only person in the company worried that being an asshole may not be the key to long-term success in a publicly traded global enterprise.
And being an asshole is pretty much Travis’ entire identity. In the premiere, he has a few testy interactions with his brother, a firefighter, who doesn’t seem to respect TK’s work. But we never actually hear from the brother, or find out the root of their fractured bond. Travis’ initial girlfriend, Angie (Annie Chang, who recently co-starred in “Peacemaker”), is little more than a sounding board and supportive voice for Travis; their relationship just another means to illustrate his selfish, delusional nature. Many of the “Super Pumped” women are similarly underwritten. Bonnie (Elizabeth Shue), Travis’ mother, comes closest to a fully realized character, but only by lightly pushing back on her son’s bad behavior. Bishé’s Austin Geidt appears regularly, flexing her skills as a recruiter and strategist, but her storyline mainly tees up Travis’ egregious downplaying of company-wide sexual harassment. By the time “Super Pumped” eventually eviscerates Uber for its horrific treatment of women, the condemnation feels superficial when it should feel lived; a sharing of facts without the intimate understanding scripted adaptations can provide.
Written by showrunners Brian Koppelman, David Levien, and Beth Schacter, “Super Pumped” has the swagger of the trio’s work on “Billions” and packs each episode with a surprising number of truths. Onscreen graphics — from flashing dollar signs to a sequence that plays out as a video game — stress key points or help simplify complicated business endeavors (even if they’re also crass and cool in a way Travis would enjoy). Tarantino’s narration is jarring, and only underlines the series’ lack of perspective. (Who is telling this story? My best guess changes from scene to scene.) Gordon-Levitt is completely convincing as an ego-driven sociopath, though he lacks the twinkle and charisma of DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort (who feels like an inspiration). Uma Thurman, as Arianna Huffington, talks a great game and backs it up when given the chance. Kyle Chandler can play this part in his sleep; a loving husband and father who not only wants what’s best for the company at large but to better the man in charge of it? Come on. That’s his bread and butter. But even a mega-wealthy Coach Taylor surrogate isn’t enough to tip the show’s focus away from the asshole at its center.
Through five episodes, “Super Pumped” is all about a smooth ride. Fueled by anger more than insights, it doesn’t seem built to provide a fresh spin on greed and power in the 21st century, or how Kalanick’s quest mirrors technology giants’ invasive, self-serving business practices. Those elements are there, but they’re sped by in favor of chronicling events already recounted elsewhere. Kalanick takes up most of the oxygen, which puts Showtime’s anthology series in an all-too-familiar box.
Whenever a TV series asks viewers to spend this much time watching bad men do bad things — and it would take far less than “Super Pumped’s” 10-hour runtime to glean the same lessons from Isaac and others’ reporting on Uber — I think back to one of Emily St. James’ Vox articles on antiheroes. In describing what separates the great antihero stories from the glut of mediocre ones, St. James writes that shows like “Breaking Bad” and “The Sopranos” aren’t just vicarious thrill rides. “We want to see Tony Soprano kill his enemies and do whatever he wants because we want to live vicariously through him. But on some level, we also don’t want him to do the bad thing because we know it will only damn him further.”
Antiheroes need something to lose, and the audience needs to dread that loss. Tony Soprano loses the battle for his soul. Walter White loses the family he set out to protect. Travis Kalanick loses… his company? His soul is never up for grabs because we’re never shown he has one. His family is tossed aside without a second thought. The ride is entertaining, but the driver is only one thing. And that one thing is an asshole.
“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” premieres Sunday, February 27 at 10 p.m. ET on Showtime. The anthology series has already been picked up for a second season, which will focus on Facebook.