“Are you an asshole?” This query is on the docket of questions Uber founder Travis Kalanick asks would-be “Uberettos” – his cloying pet name for employees at the ride-sharing behemoth. And it’s not exactly rhetorical. Travis likes assholes. It takes an asshole, apparently, to disrupt the status quo, move fast, break things, get stuff done, fail fast, fail often – insert your tech-bro bombast of choice here. Assholes, to Travis, are very effective people.
That he has a contrarian streak deeper than Silicon Valley’s San Andreas fault line tells you all you need to know about the man who broke open the taxi business only to be ousted from his throne following allegations of sexual harassment against the company in 2017. “Are you an asshole?” is among the first things he utters on Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber, a brazen new Paramount+ series about the CEO’s dizzying rise and calamitous fall. Hearing it, I thought of the advice Maya Angelou famously gave Oprah: “When people show you who they are, believe them.”
Based on New York Times reporter Mike Isaac’s 2019 account of Uber’s “work hard, play hard” company culture, Super Pumped is the first entry in a planned anthology of true-life business dramas from Billions creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien. And it’s told in the peculiar rapid-fire cadence that we reserve for Silicon Valley stories, with dialogue so aggressively pompous and needlessly cutting it’s hard to root against Travis’s certain downfall. Instead of genuine suspense, we get a grab bag of gimmicks that makes watching delightfully unpredictable: a Quentin Tarantino voiceover, video game sequences, Joseph Gordon-Levitt in prolonged direct address. If big tech’s prevalent conversational tone is hostility, its lingua franca is pop-cultural namechecks. Cult leader David Koresh, the teamster Jimmy Hoffa, US president Andrew Johnson, Chicago Bulls coach Phil Jackson, Frank Sinatra, Gandhi, and, of course, “Zuck” are a very, very small fraction of the show’s wide-ranging reference set.
There’s nothing subtle about Travis, played by Gordon-Levitt with a sharky charm befitting the tech-bro archetype we first met in 2010’s The Social Network. But Travis lacks Mark Zuckerburg’s patient wiles. He tells you exactly what defiant move he has in mind, whether it’s running an illegal scam on transport regulators or throwing a sketchy Vegas rager for the entire company. It’s not Travis’s ingenuity that dazzles, but his willingness to act on his most audacious promises.
The only people who see through his swagger are Travis’s long-suffering girlfriend Gabi Holzwarth (Bridget Gao Hollitt), his mother (Elisabeth Shue), and the venture capitalist who bankrolls Uber’s early efforts, Bill Gurley. Bill, played by Friday Night Lights star Kyle Chandler with his signature soft-spoken, avuncular appeal, represents who Travis might be with more maturity. Or maybe Travis is the uppity blowhard Bill would be if he had the ideas to change the world but not the money to make it possible.
The problem with the series’ myopic focus on Uber’s head honcho is that main characters need to evolve. Travis never comes close, even with worthy foils to expose his bad traits. Gordon-Levitt imbues Travis’s ruthlessness with boyish, almost playful panache, but ultimately there’s not much compelling about a 40-year-old man who lashes out like a toddler across seven episodes. He yells, he ridicules, he backstabs, all while trumpeting Uber’s “frictionless” user experience.
Like “Uberettos” and “frictionless”, “super pumped” is another term in Travis’s private glossary. He uses it to describe the perpetually revved up state in which he exists. At Uber HQ, it’s a core value that demands more and more from employees. But really it’s slick playground gibberish, a made-up word that Travis uses to excuse his own worst impulses and to get what he wants. The series resists the urge to humanise Travis’s selfishness, but it also fails to extrapolate what super pumped guys like Travis mean for Silicon Valley and the rest of us. The result is low-calorie entertainment of the highest order, as flashy and empty as Travis’s self-serving rallying cry.