It’s been six years since the Manus X Machina-themed Met Gala, where a new kind of star walked the red carpet alongside artists and Kardashians: Apple’s Tim Cook, Tesla’s Elon Musk, Google’s Sergey Brin, Instagram’s Kevin Systrom, and Uber’s Travis Kalanick. The most important tech bros of the 21st century were now trading in a celebrity status that extended beyond Silicon Valley.
Since then, the tech bro’s cultural currency has fallen as the number of exposés on the nefarious practices of Facebook and Uber has risen, and with virtually every lame thing that comes out of Elon Musk’s mouth turning them into villains and objects of ridicule. Movies like Venom, Free Guy, and The Matrix Resurrections have cast tech bros as nihilistic monsters seeking total control over the unwilling masses. And it is in that spirit that Showtime’s Super Pumped tells the story of Kalanick, the Uber CEO who revolutionized the transportation system, made billions of dollars, disrupted the tech world, and is, to put it mildly, a very bad man.
Brian Koppelman and David Levien are behind this adaptation of Mike Isaac’s book of the same name. The Billions duo cast Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Travis, tamping down his natural charisma to create a man of shallow charm and unrelenting ambition. We start with the straw that breaks the camel’s back in 2017. When faced with a litany of sexual assaults by Uber drivers on female passengers, Travis comes up with a “safe rides fee” where, obscenely, Uber would charge riders extra for drivers who had watched a safety video, profiting from passengers’ fears and lulling them into a false sense of security. We then travel back in time to when Uber was just a pipe dream and see how we got here.
A young Travis, fresh off his Red Swoosh disappointment, now seeks funding from acclaimed venture capitalist Bill Gurney (Kyle Chandler). Although Travis hasn’t grown into the nightmare human we see in 2017, he’s still brimming with bullshit, telling the story of coming up with Uber’s concept on top of the Eiffel Tower, rather than the mundane reality that his partner came up with it while they sat in a nondescript diner. But he isn’t the only one full of bravado; Gurney pretends to be drunker than he is. Both men bring out the worst in one another, inflating each other’s egos and reinforcing their self-aggrandizing mythology. And mythology means so much in this world, as the tech bros lovingly compare their antics to the triumphs of Michael Jordan, Disney, or LeBron James. The greatest myths of all, those of Mark “Zuck” Zuckerberg and Steve Jobs, loom large over the next generation who strive to walk in their formidable footprints.
Zuck’s shadow is particularly dominant, and is alternately used to inspire Travis to keep going and to cut him down to size when he gets too big for his boots. Rapes and murders barely register to Kalanick beyond an inconvenience (he reacts to news of an Uber driver murdering a child with a lightly annoyed, “This is gonna suck for me!”). But when Sergey Brin flirts with Travis’ girlfriend, and Google exec David Drummond (a chilling Damon Gumpton) informs him that Brin “wouldn’t do that to Zuck,” it cuts Travis to his core.
Similarly, The Social Network looms over Super Pumped, but despite also having a complex ruthless man at its center, the anthology series succeeds when it moves away from David Fincher’s deadly serious tone and gets increasingly playful with form, leaning into the dark humor. The voiceover by Quentin Tarantino, animation flourishes, unreliable narration, and fourth wall-breaking creep up slowly, at first employed infrequently enough to make things jarring and tonally messy. But when board meetings are framed by Street Fighter-style animation, it is delightfully silly, and reminds us that these men, for all their power, money, and influence, are in stunted adolescence.
Uber itself becomes Travis’ Picture Of Dorian Gray, where he remains peppy and retains his boyish good looks while the company transforms into an abomination. The company that once purported to care about its drivers, customers, and employees traps them in a decaying hell of Travis’ creation. The series is strongest when it uses its stylistic flourishes to explore those stories, particularly in episode five, which brings background characters to the fore to explain just how miserable Uber has made their lives. When Super Pumped heightens its reality and embraces the absurd, it smartly comes across more as a dark successor to 500 Days Of Summer than a Fincher rip-off.
It’s a credit to Gordon-Levitt that he’s able to pull off the same feat he did in 500 Days, keeping the core of the character true throughout wild tonal shifts, and making our protagonist compelling enough to invest in his journey despite being despicable. Not that Travis is alone in his awfulness—all of Silicon Valley is depicted as having a sub-human level of empathy. The creators of Super Pumped have envisioned Travis’ story as the first installment of an anthology series where each season will explore a different revolutionary business, and this series subtly positions this story in that way. Casting familiar actors like Hank Azaria, Ben Feldman, Fred Armisen, and John Michael Higgins in small but pivotal roles make this story feel like just a single strand, with many other narratives unspooling in parallel.
Though the arc of Super Pumped is quickly established, there are plenty of twists and shocks along the way. Even a person paying light attention to the news might be aware of the toxic, frat house atmosphere of the Uber offices, that at first appear sleek and modern but evolve into a quasi-Death Star by the third episode. Travis proudly seeks to only hire “assholes,” and in that, at least, he succeeds. Beyond the regular infighting and bro-y antics, Super Pumped delights in showing us how awful a workplace Uber was. It’s hard to shock an audience in the wake of #MeToo, now that everything from BoJack Horseman to The Assistant have taken on misogyny in the workplace, but the series is still impactful.
While the toxicity, subterfuge, and abuse undoubtedly happened, Super Pumped has fun speculating on Travis’ motives. At times, his relationships with his colleagues seem deeply homoerotic, and he casts dual mentors Bill Gurney and Ariana Huffington (Uma Thurman) as replacement parents, ones that unquestioningly believe him to be a genius, and any wavering from that belief is considered the ultimate betrayal. Travis and Ariana’s relationship, beyond the Oedipal undertones, seems the most unlikely at first. What would a journalist turned media magnate have in common with a mercenary tech bro? But, as the show reminds us, Huffington’s success was born of not paying the writers whose wares she sold, and media companies are just as capable of anyone of undermining the talents of their workers and treating them with utter contempt. The Travis Kalanicks of the world only thrive in a toxic ecosystem, and Super Pumped doesn’t let anyone off the hook.