Is there anyone in the United States who hasn’t heard of Uber? There are surely those who haven’t taken an Uber, but the ridesharing service is now so widespread and popular that its name has reached a level of other products like Kleenex and Band-Aid that are referenced even when the brand name has been replaced by a generic or competitor. Uber’s history as a company is still relatively new, but it’s incredibly interesting and a perfect choice to be the focus of the first season of Showtime’s newest anthology series, Super Pumped.
It’s hard to imagine a world without Uber in it, and the first episode of Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber shows a small piece of that. When founder Travis Kalanick (Joseph Gordon-Levitt) walks outside after a pitch meeting with potential investor Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), he notices that Gurley is having trouble hailing a cab. Kalanick pulls out his phone and a grainy, no-frills map of the area comes up just seconds before a vehicle magically arrives. There is no UberX, no pool option, no way to tip, but the idea is so simple and easy that it’s absolutely revolutionary.
Innovation and reinvention is at the forefront of Uber’s remarkable ascension in this series, as best expressed through Kalanick’s insuppressible determination. He won’t let anything stand in his way, and is set on going around those whose minds he can’t change, explaining that the company’s actions aren’t really illegal if the rules aren’t legitimate in the first place. That mentality is certainly a dangerous one, and it’s reminiscent of a scene from Succession where Kendall Roy desperately needs to get on a helicopter and says he’ll pay whatever fines the FAA assesses, no matter how high, only to be told that the helicopter will be literally shot out of the sky if it takes off. Like the fictional Roy, the real Kalanick isn’t content to be told no, so he will just stop asking the question and continue doing what he was doing anyway, no matter the potential consequences.
This story would likely be interesting enough in its own right as told in documentary form, but there is something about this narrative retelling that makes it feel even more vivid and captivating. Gordon-Levitt has turned in a number of quality performances over the course of his career, mixing charm with humor in films like 500 Days of Summer, 50/50, and Don Jon, as well as in his recent Apple TV+ series Mr. Corman. He has played real people before, in, among other films, Snowden and The Walk, and Kalanick actually does feel like a formidable amalgam of those two, mixing Edward Snowden’s sharp resourcefulness with Philippe Petit’s brilliant recklessness. Gordon-Levitt is more than up to the task, and his relentless energy drives the beat and pace of this show.
There is a playfulness to Super Pumped: The Battle of Uber that elevates its content from watchable and worthwhile to remarkably entertaining, bringing in computer simulations to show the rapid spread of Uber and involving guest stars like Richard Schiff and Fred Armisen as city representatives trying to stop Uber from even setting up shop where they are. At times, it feels larger than life and as if it has to be exaggerated for dramatic effect, and while that’s surely true, the idea that most of this isn’t made up showcases the uncontrolled nature of the startup world and the way in which Uber shattered all expectations. It’s a riveting story, one that is only made more compelling by the fact that Uber is such a household name even if its road to get there was rocky and quite unbelievable at times.
Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber premieres Sunday, February 27th at 10pm on Showtime.