Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber TV Review

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tK_S8lzqaTs

Plot: The story of one of Silicon Valley’s most successful and most destructive unicorns, Uber. The season pivots on Travis Kalanick, Uber’s hard-charging CEO who was ultimately ousted in a boardroom coup, and his sometimes tumultuous relationship with his mentor Bill Gurley, the plainspoken, brilliant Texan venture capitalist who bets his sterling reputation on Uber’s success – and then has to live with the consequences. Thurman stars as Arianna Huffington, the savvy businesswoman and co-founder of The Huffington Post, who was an Uber board member. 

Review: Super Pumped, the new anthology series from Showtime, is a curious project. The brainchild of Billions co-creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the series is based on the non-fiction bestseller of the same name by New York Times writer Mike Isaac. A hot property since it was published in 2019, Super Pumped is an amalgam of the rich people acting nasty genre that includes Yellowstone and Succession with the true-crime bend popularized by Ryan Murphy and his American Crime Story adaptations. But, while Super Pumped aims to be a cross between Adam McKay’s The Big Short and David Fincher’s The Social Network, it ends up being a mediocre chronicle of a really interesting story. By failing to capitalize on what made the rise of Uber so fascinating, this series ends up wasting the star power of Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Kyle Chandler, and Uma Thurman.

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The uneven style of Super Pumped kicks in almost immediately with a series of on-screen title cards in flashy colors and giant fonts that proclaim who the various characters are, where the setting is, and the year as this story crossing a swath of time starting back in 2011 with the rise of UberCab and its volatile leader, Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt). Then a regional disruptor to the taxi market in San Francisco, Kalanick and his company go toe to toe with the city while also desperately trying to secure funding from investor Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler). We quickly learn that Kalanick is a far more energetic leader than Mark Zuckerberg (think along the lines of Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street). Desperate to prove himself, we see quieter moments where Kalanick is at home with his family and the bond with his mother (played by Elisabeth Shue). Fearing the shadow of his brother, Kalanick pushes even harder for Uber to be a success and starts every interview by asking candidates “are you an asshole?”

Joseph Gordon-Levitt is great at playing up the douche-bag tendencies of his character while also showing Kalanick’s need for approval from his family as well as the surrogate father figure in Gurley. But, Super Pumped never really wants to show us whether Kalanick is a good or bad guy as the early episodes pit Uber as David against the Goliath that is the taxi and livery industry. As sexual harassment and other ethical violations pile up, we are left wondering why we are getting only one side of the story. The story is propelled along by a soundtrack heavy with rock hits, many of them by Pearl Jam, as well as a ton of supporting performances and cameos from Hank Azaria, Richard Schiff, Fred Armisen, and more. The most significant supporting role aside from Kyle Chandler comes from Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington. Thurman is excellent here as the Uber board member and continues to add to her excellent small-screen resume.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=NfuFRgGVM8U

As interesting as the story of Travis Kalanick’s rise and fall is on paper, it fails to consistently translate on screen. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is so good in this role and yet it feels like his dialogue is far more heavy-handed than it should be, failing to echo the quality of Aaron Sorkin’s work in The Social Network. The editing, manic and propulsive, is also very scattered with some episodes shifting from a linear approach to flashbacks and forwards. Other episodes compress years into an hour running time while others focus on specific days and weeks of significance. It is jarring and hard to keep track of and makes one wonder if the writers had trouble balancing this seven-year saga consistently over eight episodes.

There is also the notable inclusion of narration by Quentin Tarantino. Tarantino, who joined the project due to his fandom for Billions, has a great delivery with his voice-over, but it is used so sporadically that I was left wondering why they even had a narrator to begin with. At one point in the first episode, Tarantino’s narration repeats, word for word, what an on-screen character had just said. It is a weird use of such a recognizable person and comes across as being included just for the sake of having Tarantino’s name in the credits.

Super Pumped is all over the place and often feels derivative of countless other shows and films about CEOs. Joseph Gordon-Levitt, one of the most likable actors around, is great at making us want to like Travis Kalanick despite knowing just how much he overlooked at Uber. The series, like Kalanick, wants our approval desperately but it is very easy to see that something is fundamentally missing here. Maybe the second season of Super Pumped, already set to follow Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook, will find a more balanced approach to telling its story. As it stands, this is a fast-moving drama that focuses on the wrong elements of a cautionary tale that benefits from great actors giving good performances in an okay series with bad consistency.

Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber premieres on February 27th on Showtime.

7

Source: JoBlo.com

About the Author

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Alex Maidy has been a JoBlo.com editor, columnist, and critic since 2012. A Rotten Tomatoes-approved critic and a member of Chicago Indie Critics, Alex has been JoBlo.com's primary TV critic and ran columns including Top Ten and The UnPopular Opinion. When not riling up fans with his hot takes, Alex is an avid reader and aspiring novelist.