Want To Truly Appreciate White Male Antihero TV Dramas? Watch Series About Real Ones
Or: Why We Didn’t Need Super Pumped
In my early review of Super Pumped: The Rise and Fall of Uber, I told my audience that while I found the series well acted, I couldn’t bring myself to watch it. Well, that turned out to be a falsehood. I ended up the lion’s share of the remaining episodes anyway with a kind of grim fascination; unable to look away the same way can’t avoid watching a slow-moving car crash. The series told me quite a few things about Uber, as well as certain things about limited series. Let me share what I learned, so you can make your best assessment.
Over the past several years, Showtime seems to have been specializing in limited series about the rise and fall of men behind powerful companies. In 2019, The Loudest Voice featured Russell Crowe as Roger Ailes. Super Pumped first season deals primarily with Travis Kallanick, the force behind Uber. Some time in the next couple of years, Season 2 will show us the story of Mark Zuckerberg.
Loudest Voice and Uber are technically well-done series. Both feature generally brilliant writing and direction, and super-acting from the leads on down. In the latter, we see great performances from Joseph Gordon-Levitt cast brilliantly against type, Kyle Chandler as Bill Gurley, the investor who gives Uber the seed money to get started, and several excellent character performances, from Elisabeth Shue as Travis’ mother, cameos by gifted actors such as Richard Schiff, Hank Azaria and Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington. We get to see the rise of one of a now ubiquitous company, all of the horrible things they did in order to rise to power, and how Travis’s behavior became increasingly toxic and was eventually forced to resign. So in the narrowest of senses, Super Pumped fits the definition of the traditional Peak TV series combined with the path of a traditional biopic like, say, The Social Network or The Big Short, to use to appropriate films.
But by comparison, I found Super Pumped far most unpleasant and deflating than so many of the Peak TV series that a lot of current fans (me included) have bitched about over the last few years. And that may be because since these series are fictional, the writers behind them are allowed to have their leads take certain paths that lead to fragmental changes to them as well as the world around them. Say what you will about Jason Bateman’s character in Ozark, at the very least he is willing to adapt his plan to try and deal with the outside threats and dangers to the people he loves.
None of that is apparent at all in Travis. Travis is more than willing to call himself an ‘asshole’ — he’s actually proud of it in the first episode. He goes through the founding of his company, behaving arrogantly and crassly to his competitors and people he should consider being his allies. He runs over all his problems — there is no other way. Anyone who he even considers being disloyal or says anything against him is just another adversary. And he thinks that even the people who can hurt him should just take a knee to him because of who he is. In one episode as threats to his company mount, he finds himself unwilling going through ‘the charm offensive’ in which he goes through the motions of trying to win the press over. During that meeting, one of his allies suggests that they should track down one of the people complaining against them and destroy her on social media. The shocked reporter asks if he wants that off the record and he says no. When the story comes out the next day, Travis is angry — not at the colleague for saying it, but at the reporter, the media and the people who bring it to his attention.
As the threats continue to mount against him, Travis becomes increasingly more of a bully. He refuses to back down from his approaches, forces an ally to break an arrangement because he knows he’ll back down from it, and when things get worse and he is being forced to take a leave of absence, he fires this ally — and then is pissed at him when he is hostile. In the final episode, when it becomes clear he is going to be forced out of the company, he spends the day he’s been giving trying to shore up his allies — most of them people he has spent the series isolating. He tries to win them over not by pretending that he will change or even that things will improve, but by saying that Uber is his company and they need to destroy the invaders. At one point, he even goes to the man he basically stole the idea for Uber from for support and when this man calls Travis out for calling it ‘his company’, Travis shows no shame and instantly turns on the man he’s been trying to win over. Even when there is clearly no option left for him but to surrender, he is bitter and petty all the way down — he insists that Bill Gurley be forced to resign with him. He refuses to lose without burning as much of the place down as possible.
Now I realize everything that we learn about Uber — their ways of using customers’ personal information, their toxic treatment of female people in tech, the way the staff underpaid its employees and sacrificed everything in the name of growth — is something the public should know. And it might have been more bearable as a documentary series or a feature film. Why I take a certain offense to Super Pumped is that is masquerades as entertainment the story of a monstrous individual who rose to power and tries to show it as a story of a man who fell from grace. Except…he didn’t. As the final captions show us, everybody who invested or who was a part of Uber, almost every toxic personality involved, is now a billionaire and almost all are still working in the tech industry. Travis Kalanick is still a billionaire and now the founder of yet another start up. Uber has gone public and everyone behind the company was there on the floor of the NYSE when one of the founders rang the bell, including Travis. The reports of all the toxic behavior have become public about everything, but I’m relatively certain it’s a matter of time before we learn more horrors behinds the scenes. Are we supposed to consider a moral victory that one of the men who sued Travis for publicly berating him for in one of his own cars received a $200,000 settlement? I’m reminded of Gretchen Carlson being hailed at the end of Loudest Voice for getting a $20 million settlement from Fox News. Sounds great, until you learn Roger Ailes got a $26 million golden parachute.
At least when you finish watching a Peak TV series like Breaking Bad or The Shield or Dexter, you walked away with the feeling that horrible person paid for all the awful things they did. Watching a series like Super Pumped or The Loudest Voice leaves you with the feeling you’d get if Breaking Bad had ended with Walter White beating his cancer, leaving Hank and Agent Gomez to rot in the desert and getting named Federal Drug Czar.
Yes I know. This is real life this is how the world works for the one percent. This is precisely the same reason I can’t tolerate Succession and have long since run out of patience with Billions (which, for the record, was developed by the people behind Super Pumped). What actually makes this more horrendous is Travis is clearly not even appreciated by his fellow billionaires. In one episode, he’s called on the carpet by Tim Cook (Azaria) for everything that’s happening. Rather than offer anything resembling truth or apologies, he keeps leaning on the Silicon Valley and that ‘Steve would get it’. Cook’s expression or tone never changes. When the meeting ends and Travis leaves with a relative slap on the wrist. Tim says: “Yeah, Steve would have gotten you. He wouldn’t have liked you very much, though.” For a man who has spent his entire career trying to be these guys, this is the ultimate twist of the knife. Even at the end, he keeps using them as his models, even though he knows they would neither respect nor even tolerate him.
Series like Super Pumped are essentially docu-series for people who want to see real-life Rich White Male Antiheroes in action. Given the critical success and rabid fan base for Succession and my own fascination with Billions, I can’t exactly argue there isn’t a market for it. That we need an entirely new anthology series covering the lives of these series is questionable. (At least, they can give an arc of some kind for Kalanick; for all the troubles that Facebook and Mark Zuckerberg are currently facing, they show no sign yet of collapsing…so far.) I will be glad to move on from it and to other limited docudramas featuring the kind of stories we need here. One will take over Super Pumped’s time slot: First Ladies and will feature Viola Davis as Michelle Obama, Gillian Anderson as Eleanor Roosevelt, and Michelle Pfeiffer as Betty Ford. I expect to be more engaged and intrigued by this series, because it features public women who had to live in the world of power and prestige and frequently were unable even to touch it. Their struggles were both larger and smaller than all the ones that so many characters in Super Pumped face and they had far more personal triumphs that in their way affected us just as deeply. I’d rather see any one of these actresses tell their stories than a dozen more of the ones we’ve just seen — and keep seeing — on series like Super Pumped.