Although Travis Kalanick takes centre stage throughout the whole first season, his characterisation turns out to be exceedingly black and white, but Levitt’s performance is commendable enough.
Last Updated: 01.46 PM, Apr 11, 2022
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber traces the story of the origin and growth of one of the biggest ride-sharing companies in the world - Uber. The series follows Travis Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and former CEO, his contribution to the company’s huge growth and his eventual ousting from the very company he helped build. The various controversies that marred Kalanick’s tenure, including the allegations of sexism and privacy allegations by Uber, are also explored.
Former Uber CEO Travis Kalanick certainly gave the writers of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber a lot of material to work with through his ‘eventful’ tenure as the company’s CEO. And the show does not, in any way, pretend to be about anything but Kalanick, or TK as he’s called. Although the show does touch upon some hot topic issues that were a part of Uber’s troubled history such as its troubling allegations of sexism in the workplace and allegations of privacy violations among others, it explores them all in the context of what it had to do with Kalanick. Whether or not the show was able to do justice to the controversial genius is another question entirely.
The show takes viewers through Kalanick’s humble beginnings as a struggling entrepreneur, and how he managed to rise the ranks in the business world with seemingly nothing but his gumption and a very healthy ego, ultimately resulting in company landing into all sorts of trouble.
Kalanick is initially portrayed as a charismatic and magnetic personality, who has a way with words and remains a hustler throughout his life, from his up-and-coming entrepreneur phase to his ‘ruthless CEO’ phase. His flamboyance becomes exhausting at times and as the series progresses, it is clear that the writers built the whole character based on a handful of personality traits they churn and wring everything they’re worth out of. The result is a black-and-white character painted with hues of ‘absolutes’. Rather than a real person with layers, the series chooses to give viewers a very limited insight of who Kalanick is and what his motivations are, oversimplifying the person as a whole. Kalanick is depicted as someone everyone watching will love to hate - pompous, selfish, ruthless, insensitive, egotistical and every other unflattering adjective you can think of.
Joseph Gordon-Levitt takes on the role of the businessman, and certainly tries to give it his all as an actor, leading to a very spirited performance that occasionally makes viewers wonder whether the actor is putting a tad too much effort than is needed. His chemistry with co-star Kyle Chandler, who plays one of Uber’s first investors Bill Gurley, makes for some of the best interactions in the whole series. The dynamic between them is clearly written to be a good vs bad parallel, as we see the honourable, level headed Gurley try to rein in Kalanick’s over the top and risky attitudes.
Chandler is not the only seasoned star to make an appearance in the series, as we get to see Elisabeth Shue, Hank Azaria and Ben Feldman essay the roles of Kalanick’s mother, Apple co-founder, Tim Cook and Google co-founder, Larry Page respectively. Although their roles do not offer much in terms of leaving an impact, their presence surely adds a weight to their characters. Quentin Tarantino brings his talents as the series narrator, his narration bringing with its witticisms disguised as an edgy version of what is going on, although it does come across as the show ‘trying too hard’ at times.
Uma Thurman as Arianna Huffington does make for an interesting casting choice, but the character suffers from the same lack of depth as the other characters on the show do. Even Thurman’s talent cannot save the regrettable route the writers chose to take with Huffington’s character. Instead of an accomplished author and businesswoman, we are given a very eccentric, watered down version of a real person. Her limited role on the show seems to be to only act as a misguided enabler to Kalanick and, bizarrely, a mother figure as well. Even her intentions and motivations are left unanswered in the end.
The way Super Pumped chose to tell its story holds true to the phrase ‘all style and no substance’. The show is guilty of making use of too much flash and grandiosity in its storytelling, which although serves as a good way to draw viewers in, ends up becoming very exhausting when it is non-stop. Granted, it does make for some witty and eye-catching moments, but unfortunately, it also leads to more than a few instances where one wishes they would just strip the story to its basic parts and be done with.
Although powered by some charismatic performances from most of its cast, Super Pumped: The Battle suffers from many pitfalls, most of which are brought about by the showy way the writing chose to tell Kalanick’s story.