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Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber Presents TV's Latest Bad Tech Bro

The creators of Billions miss the mark in telling the story of Uber as a tale of hubris and bad behavior.
  •  Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. (Photo: Elizabeth Morris/Showtime)
    Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. (Photo: Elizabeth Morris/Showtime)

    We live in an age of cretins. Cretins in politics who have devolved beyond shame. Cretins in business who rake in billions from a pandemic. Cretins who crashed the housing market and the banks with impunity. Cretins on airplanes being belligerent, and in school board meetings threatening violence, and at the Olympics coaching teenagers to cheat. Popular culture's attempts to reckon with this age of shameless villainy have felt a bit scattershot, which is only appropriate since we haven't figured out what to do with these people in real life either. Sharply written satires have skewered politics (Veep) and the wealthy (Succession), while head-on parody of current events on shows like Saturday Night Live has often felt frustratingly limp. We've taken to re-litigating the '90s in shows like Pam & Tommy and the Britney docs in order to feel some sense of control or rubbernecking at things like the Fyre Festival for the balm of schadenfreude. We live in a moment obsessed with grifters like Anna Delvey and Elizabeth Holmes, fascinated that these people could fool so many for so long.

    Into this environment steps Showtime's new anthology series Super Pumped, and its eight-episode first season, focused on the rise of ride-sharing tech insurgent Uber and how its heedless and cocky CEO Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) ended up ousted from his own company. The Kalanick we see fashions himself in the same mold as the tech gods who came before him, watching Jeff Bezos YouTube videos before he goes to bed at night and dropping names like Musk and Ellison like they're bedtime prayers. As the series begins, Travis had already gotten "UberCab" up and running in San Francisco with enough of a presence that he's run afoul of the municipal transportation authorities (Richard Schiff plays transportation agency head Randall Pearson with a mixture of disdain and incredulity), but he needs a venture capital investment to take the company to the next level. Enter Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), a VC with deep pockets and experience with "unicorn" startups. Their partnership will give wings to Uber, equip it with the funds to move city by city across the country, and ultimately lead to an impasse between them that will …

    That ellipsis is ultimately the crack that the series falls through. We know this ultimately will go bad for Travis Kalanick. If we didn't know it by reading the news over the last five years, or by reading the description of the series provided by Showtime, we know it because we've seen films and TV shows before. No CEO this obnoxiously cocky — and best believe that Gordon-Levitt plays him as a level 10 douchebag — isn't going to face his comeuppance. But what, ultimately, will that mean? With or without Kalanick, Uber is a pervasive and largely destructive force in tech and business. In telling its story, there are sobering reminders of the lip service these tech CEOs pay to noble intentions (freeing the taxi drivers from indentured servitude! saving commuters from crappy taxi service!) while simultaneously and gleefully devising end runs around, for example, claims of sexual assault and unsafe riding conditions. But all of this ends up being window dressing to a battle of wills between Travis Kalanick and Bill Gurley, a business-world clash that ultimately means nothing.

    Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick and Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley. (Photo: Elizabeth Morris/Showtime)

    Along the way, there's plenty of swagger to spare. Writers/producers Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the men behind Showtime's equally cocky finance drama Billions, don't spare on … well, much of anything. If Jesse Eisenberg's maladjusted and mercurial Mark Zuckerberg was more to the tech side of "tech bro," Gordon-Levitt's Travis Kalanick is all in on the bro side, loudly hyping up his team, interviewing new hires by asking "Are you an asshole?" (the preferred answer is obviously "yes"), and throwing the obligatory debauched retreat in Vegas. A decade ago, Gordon-Levitt was one of the more promising actors of his generation, playing charming leading men in movies like Looper and 50/50. Somewhere around his directorial debut Don Jon, however, JGL pivoted to being America's fuckboy of choice, ranging from cocky and unlikeable French daredevils (The Walk) to neurotic but unbearable public school teachers (Mr. Corman). He's cast to type in Super Pumped, pretty much confirming the audience's every suspicion about the Uber CEO within the show's first ten seconds as he shouts "We don't have time for safety bullshit!" at one of his underlings.

    The swagger doesn't stop with the leading man, either, nor the numerous and likely not cheap Pearl Jam needle drops which cast a deeply Gen X vibe over this decidedly Millennial tale. The attitude is set most blaringly by the running voiceover and "do you get it??" on-screen graphics, lending the entire season an air of the most coked out TED Talk you've ever heard. The show made headlines with the announcement that Quentin Tarantino would provide said voiceover, another big tactical swing for a show that was already tipping the scales on purposeful obnoxiousness.

    The rest of the cast comes to play. Kyle Chandler in particular is imbuing his venture capitalist with more soul than the role probably requires, as he wrestles with whether to preserve his reputation or ride Travis's ego trip to its inevitable fiery crash. You imagine Kerry Bishé was cast as Austin Geidt — Uber's insurgent recruiter, going from city to city and luring drivers away from the cab and limo companies — on the back of her phenomenal performance in Halt and Catch Fire, although the common thread of tech and hubris running through both shows makes it impossible not to compare roles and conclude that she's being wasted here.

     Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington, Elisabeth Shue as Bonnie Kalanick, Bridget Gao Hollitt as Gabi, Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis Kalanick, Babak Tafti as Emil, Jon Bass as Garrett Camp, Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley and Kerry Bishe as Austin. (Photo; Robert Ascroft /Showtime)

    The parade of recurring cast members playing famous people in tech and business is undeniably a fun ride. Uma Thurman as Uber board member Arianna Huffington is the big ticket in this regard, but there's also John Michael Higgins as Mike Ovitz, Ben Feldman as Google's Larry Page, John Magaro and Shannon Woodward as the power players behind Lyft, and, in a piece of casting that tells you exactly who this show was made for (if the Tarantino thing hadn't already tipped you off), Mark Cuban shows up as himself. It's also worth noting, if only to find some queer angle on this show, that Elisabeth Shue plays Kalanick's mom, marking the second time she's played Joseph Gordon-Levitt's on-screen mom, after 2005's Mysterious Skin.

    The Battle for Uber is the first season of a proposed Super Pumped anthology that will chart the rise and (sometimes) fall of business that have impacted the culture. A second season on Facebook has already been greenlit, though after watching The Battle for Uber, one wonders where that season has to go considering how much of this one seems to be following the Social Network template without Aaron Sorkin and David Fincher's bone-deep ambivalence for its main character and the tech ethos he finds himself embroiled it. Super Pumped doesn't revere Travis Kalanick or Bill Gurley, but it does view them as inherently fascinating men caught in a tale of hubris run amok. This feels like a fundamental misread of not only the Uber story but of the cultural moment we're in. At a time when these cretins among us feel immune to consequence, it's frustrating to watch a show that can't help but admire these tech CEOs for their vision and grandiosity even as they're blowing it on ego and bad behavior. Gurley, with his VC billions and gated mansion, is an odd but telling choice for the show's moral center, a "good man with money" as mythical as the good man with a gun. Chandler gives a wonderful performance, but it's incredibly hard to care about the state of this man's soul, and it becomes increasingly off-putting that we're asked to care.

    Super Pumped: The Battle For Uber premieres on Showtime Sunday February 27 at 10:00 PM ET.

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    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, Showtime, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kerry Bishé, Kyle Chandler, Quentin Tarantino