Super Pumped Is Everything I Thought It Would Be — And Less
About a week ago I introduced a longer article with my feeling on how I feared Super Pumped: The Rise of Uber on Showtime was the kind of series I thought I should watch but that I was suddenly loathe to. I’ve since seen the first two episodes and they have fundamentally galvanized exactly what I thought I was going to see.
The series fundamentally centers on Travis Gallanick, the man behind the rise of service Uber. Joseph Gordon-Levitt is cast very against type in this role, playing a man who is angry and utterly unwilling to listen to anyone who tells him anything he doesn’t want to here, even when he desperately needs their support and more often then money. The series deals with his relationship with the venture capitalist who gave most of the seed money for Uber Cabs in its early days in San Francisco. (Kyle Chandler is superb as Bill Gurley, clearly the voice of sanity who knows what he’s getting into from the beginning and like everyone else, is powerless to stop Travis). We watch as Travis slowly takes Uber from a small local ride service and ‘wills an entire new system of convenience in to being.”
The series is well acted. It is the creation of the people who brought us Billions so they have a way of making the rich and powerful seem approachable. It is entertaining at times, watching Travis go through just about anybody who stands in his way, from the taxi service head in San Francisco to the regulatory commissioner in Portland. (Richard Schiff and Fred Armisen do very well in small but key roles.) It has all the benchmarks of great television. That said I spent most of the first two episodes watching not so much out of entertainment, but out of repulsion.
Travis asks everybody upon first meeting them: “Are you an asshole?” He says it because it’s the only way anybody in this business can succeed. It’s also because he is one. He treats everybody with disdain and shows no compassion for anyone. In the second episode he breaks up with his longtime girlfriend and doesn’t even bother to tell her it’s because he doesn’t love her anymore. It’s because he wants ‘different people’. To drive the knife in further, even though they’re living in her apartment he wants her to move out because he needs the place to work. He clearly thinks he can make up to her by buying her own place in New York. As she walks out Angie said simply: “I guess I was just your seed girlfriend.”
But the key part of Travis’ personality is revealed earlier in the episode. He’s met an attractive violinist earlier and says he wants to stay up late to work. He streams footage of the violinist for a few minutes, but then moves on to what really interests him — footage of Jeff Bezos giving a speech about the keys to successful leadership — the same points that he gives out to his own employees in a party later that episode.
Gurley knows early on what he’s getting with Travis. He refers to him, indirectly, as a cult leader, and that the key to working with him is ‘getting out before they set fire to the compound.” And that’s clearly what Travis is: he bullshits all his followers into believing his truth no matter who gets hurt. We learn almost casually that the origin story he had for Uber is a lie: a friend pitched the idea to him; he didn’t see any value to it but tried selling it and then pushed the friend out as he advanced. Travis constantly holds massive celebrations in Miami or Vegas, ‘celebrating his employees’. As we saw in the last episode, these basically turn into drug-fueled orgies of destruction that Travis has no problem paying $25 million to cover his losses and handing out NDAs and lawyers to make sure nobody finds out about the ugliness.
And this is all without talking about the things we know about Uber, the way it basically pays it drivers nothing, that it hacks into their customers privacy and every thing about them, and works around every possible thing that could regulate them. In the last episode, we see the process of ‘greyballing’ using information about potential consumers to ignore anyone who might pose a threat. When a lone voice asks while this is going on: “Is this legal?” everybody laughs. Travis gives a justification for it by saying its Uber against the taxi service, but like all the billionaires he envies (particularly the Silicon Valley ones) all he cares about is growth.
One of the arguments that Gordon-Levitt made in a promo for this series was that the people behind Uber justified all the illegal things they were doing by saying “by the time people find out, we’ll be too big for them to stop.” That’s true as far as that goes, but there’s a larger truth behind Super Pumped that speaks to the real reason mammoth corporations like Uber and Facebook (scheduled for Season 2 of Super Pumped) are successful. And its one that’s so small you might miss it.
In the first episode Travis, with his back against the wall, goes to the Mayor of San Francisco and does what he does best: sell. He relates the saga of transportation in America: from the horse drawn carriage to the cable car to the taxi. He ends by saying that Uber is the next step and offers it to the Mayor as the next big thing. The implication is the Mayor is convinced by his sales pitch. I think he doesn’t need convincing because this is how society works and is ultimately why these mass corporations succeed: Americans — and really the world — want the next best thing, faster, easier and cheaper.
The left fundamentally argues that reason society is in a mess is because of the one percent and the fact that all politics is bought into them. They seem to overlook the fact that none of them would be able to succeed if consumers didn’t want everything big corporations offered. Isn’t it horrible that stores like Wal-Mart use sweatshops to make their goods? Sure, but I can get a T-Shirt for $5 so who cares. McDonalds won’t pay its worker’s minimum wages. Does that mean it’ll cost more for a Big Mac if they did? Amazon workers aren’t even allowed bathroom breaks. As long as I get by packages in two days, who gives a damn? Once the world becomes used to getting things faster and cheaper, they forget about the old ways soon enough. They might be nostalgic for old video stores or World Book, but God help you if you suggest regulating the Internet to help them. I honestly think corporations are wasting billions lobbying Congress about anything that resembles regulation. All they’d have to do is send an email to their consumers saying: “If Congress votes this way, it’ll cost you more to buy stuff’ and PACS would be flooded with average citizens donating money that they’d never spend on themselves..
And that’s my fundamental problem with Super Pumped. All of this may entertain or fascinate viewers, but it won’t change anybody’s mind about getting into one. No matter what we learn about the things corporations do, it doesn’t do much behind the scenes (The Loudest Voice demonstrated that) and it rarely changes the opinion of the consumer. So many people claim to be tired of watching fictional Male White Antiheroes do horrible things in TV series; why would you want to watch one of a real life one (or in recent cases, antiheroines) do the same?
So if you want to watch Super Pumped go ahead. There is entertainment value in it and the acting is very good. (I actually wouldn’t mind waiting along to see Uma Thurman’s work as Arianna Huffington in this series.) Speaking strictly for myself, I think I’ll spend the next few Sundays watching Courtney Cox in Shining Vale. If I’m going to see what amounts to a story involving an American monster, I’d rather it be fictional.
Author’s Note: This is one of the occasions where my ambivalence about the subject matter of the series may have affected by judgment. As I said, Super Pumped is very well acted and written and under other circumstances I might have been willing to give it as many as four stars. I imagine that viewers with less baggage then me will appreciate more than I will.
My score: 3 stars.