Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber is a series populated with a***holes

You may feel a little dirty after voraciously bingeing through this drama series based on the litany of Uber’s scandals.

They talk about arseholes a lot in Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber. Not literal ones, just the figurative kind.

“Am I an arsehole?” one prospective Uber employee asks himself during a job interview before deciding that yes, he is.

In that business, arseholery is an asset because the culture from the very top insists it takes an arsehole to get it done. The descriptor is thrown around like a badge of honour, as if you can’t challenge the status quo or change the world unless you’re an arsehole.

“I’m a disruptor, sometimes that means being a devious mother**ker, sometimes that means being an obnoxious arsehole,” the onscreen version of Uber co-founder Travis Kalanick proclaims in Super Pumped, not a hint of shame or perspective on his face.

With a business philosophy like that, is it any wonder that Uber came spectacularly close to imploding in the wake of multiple scandals, the litany of which is charted in the dramatic and propulsive seven-part series.

Based on the nonfiction book by New York Times journalist Mike Isaac, Super Pumped hails from Brian Koppelman and David Levien, the team behind Billions, another series about very rich people bulldozing ethical and legal lines to get what they want.

Except what’s in Super Pumped actually happened, more or less, and the ride sharing service is now so ubiquitous, it’s hard not to be invested in the story of something many viewers use regularly.

Will it make you think twice about pouring your money into a company that had so little regard for the law, its drivers or its customers? Maybe. But the Kalanick as portrayed in Super Pumped had bet the consumer wouldn’t care – as long as the car turned up to take you where you want to go.

The trade-off for convenience is wilful ignorance, and that’s a fairly common deal with the devil – in this case, the devil is Silicon Valley bros whose arrogance and hubris knows no limits.

Starring Joseph Gordon-Levitt as the brilliant but unscrupulous Kalanick, Super Pumped takes you through some familiar headlines – the Uber executive who boasted of hiring investigators to dig up dirt on journalists who wrote unflattering stories, the rampant sexual harassment they company refused to curb, the drug-fuelled bacchanalian parties, the multiple instances of privacy breaches, murdered drivers and the boardroom coup that eventually ousted Kalanick.

Even if you had followed the scandals closely – and for a while right before Kalanick’s fall in 2017, it seemed like every second day brought another sweep of bad publicity for Uber – when you see it all stitched together, the corporate greed and villainy is breathtaking.

That might be ethically fraught for an Uber rider to be confronted with everything, while being reminded that many of these bad actors are no longer in charge. But given what we know about the toxicity of Silicon Valley culture, how much has really changed?

Super Pumped goes into a lot of these thorny issues, and frequently uses the dynamic between Kalanick and prominent investor Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler) to explore if there really is a limit.

For Gurley, there is, and he functions as something of a conscience for the show, along with brief appearances from characters such as Susan Fowler, the real-life Uber employee whose personal blog post about sexual harassment kicked off a high-profile internal investigation.

While it is all wildly entertaining as the series jolts from one scandal to another, what’s missing is some of the deeper work that would’ve elevated Super Pumped from good to great.

You don’t get a real sense of what drives Kalanick other than a god complex and a seriously inflated sense of self-worth – nor doesn’t it skim more than the surface of most of its characters who are mostly archetypes or functionaries to the plot rather than a fully rounded person.

Some weird mummy issues involving Arianna Huffington (Uma Thurman) is only hinted, not delved.

And it deploys stylistic elements such as fourth-wall breaking, a snarky voiceover narration (by Quentin Tarantino, no less) and explainer interludes a la The Big Short, which are inconsistent in their effectiveness.

But this glossy series is captivating. If nothing else, there is the schadenfreude of watching some reprobates get their just desserts. That is, until you remember those humiliations come with billions of dollars. Urgh, those arseholes.

Super Pumped is streaming now on Paramount+

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