Who on earth would want to work for a tech startup?
That’s one takeaway from watching “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” an eight-episode series on Showtime premiering Feb. 27. It’s based on Mike Isaac’s book.
Sure, there’s the possibility — possibility, not guarantee — of untold millions if you’re on the ground floor of a Facebook or Google. (Notably, they don’t make a lot of TV series about the ones that fail.)
But “Super Pumped,” at least through the five episodes Showtime provided for review, makes you wonder whether it’s worth it. Steeped in tech-bro culture — which would lead to the downfall of its co-founder, Travis Kalanick — it seems like an almost comically miserable place to work.
“Are you an a—–e?” is the first question Kalanick, played with gusto and then some by Joseph Gordon-Levitt, asks a potential employee. It takes about five seconds to confirm that, at least in this depiction, Kalanick is.
Kalanick wants to be the next Mark Zuckerberg or Jeff Bezos
But he’s also maniacally driven to succeed, to chisel his name onto some mythical wall alongside Mark Zuckerberg (“Zuck” to Kalanick, though it isn’t clear he’s ever met him) and Jeff Bezos, among other people who turned out to be a little less that ideal as role models beyond the size of their bank accounts.
To most people, that is. For Kalanick, success cures all. To everyone else, including most of the people who work for him, not so much. After he runs afoul of Apple with a jaw-dropping deception that threatens to get Uber booted from the Apple Store, thereby killing it, he is summoned for an audience with Tim Cook (Hank Azaria).
At one point Kalanick brings up Steve Jobs (“Steve” to Kalanick, of course, who never met him.) Later, as he’s leaving, Cook tells Kalanick that Jobs would have understood him. Kalanick beams.
“But he wouldn’t have liked you.”
It’s easy to see why. It’s grow or die in the tech world, but win or die for Kalanick, and whoever or whatever gets in the way of that is dispensed with. When an Uber driver kills someone, his initial reaction is, “This is going to be bad for me.”
Maybe megalomania is a key requirement for people to start a game-changing company. But it doesn’t make them someone you’d want to have a beer with. To people like Emil Michael (Babak Tafti), who becomes the chief business officer at Uber, Kalanick is magnetic — hypnotic, even.
It helps that Gordon-Levitt is such an engaging actor — his performance contains enough dribs and drabs of humanity to keep you invested, even though it’s not exactly a spoiler how things turn out (or how “Super Pumped” will portray the outcome).
Kyle Chandler and Uma Thurman also star in ‘Super Pumped’
Also good is Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley, the “VC,” or venture capitalist, who keeps Uber afloat in the early days, a decent-seeming fellow who knows the right horse to bet on — and when to change jockeys. Chandler made such an impression as the humble Coach Taylor in “Friday Night Lights” that it’s interesting to see him play a master-of-the-universe type. You reflexively look for decency in his characters, even if they’re sitting on top of truckloads of money entrepreneurs are begging for.
It’s a compelling story, but it jumps around a bit. Uma Thurman shows up eventually as Ariana Huffington, who finagles a seat on the Uber board and becomes a sort of new-age mentor to Kalanick, really the only person who can reach him once he’s lost in the space of success.
The culture of sexual harassment at Uber is mostly hinted at for the first few episodes, though eventually it takes center stage, particularly when Susan Fowler (Eva Victor) walks the audience through her experience. (Fowler’s blog post was revelatory in real life.)
Visually “Super Pump” is somewhat manic, with on-screen animations and Quentin Tarantino dropping in occasionally as a narrator with a fondness of f-bombs. (You would expect nothing less from Tarantino.) It’s a fitting representation of the go-go-go culture and ethos.
It’s all entertaining, if not enlightening. People act like jerks. Sometimes it catches up with them. Although sometimes they talk away with a couple of billion dollars, too.
Maybe next time you’ll take Lyft.