Travis Kalanick, the former CEO of the ride-sharing company Uber, might seem like a tiresome subject for a seven-episode docudrama series: another move-fast-break-things tech bro whose “change the world” sloganeering barely disguises a seething insecurity. Yet these qualities are exactly what makes this such a plum role for Joseph Gordon-Levitt, the star of the new series “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber.” That’s not meant as a dig at Gordon-Levitt, a talented actor with charisma and energy to spare. But his work as Kalanick does the neat trick of flipping a performer’s potential weaknesses — a sometime tendency to peacock, in his visible efforts to put on a show — into a character-defining strength. The show’s version of Kalanick, called “TK” by his closest colleagues, is brash and cocksure; he’s also relentlessly self-conscious about his endless points of reference — “Zuck” (of Facebook), “Ek” (of Spotify), and any other “founders” (to use TK’s preferred, cultlike term) who became obscenely wealthy legends.
Like Kalanick, “Super Pumped” has a lot of well-known antecedents. Most often it plays like a hybrid of “The Social Network” and “The Wolf of Wall Street,” half tech-culture procedural and half immersion into finance-culture toxicity. Kalanick never addresses the camera to tell the audience they don’t really need to worry about the complicated financial details, as Leonardo DiCaprio’s Jordan Belfort does in “Wolf,” but only because he’s too busy essentially sending that message to his employees as he issues pronouncements that circumvent guidelines, laws and sometimes basic common sense.
At the same time, the five episodes made available for review (of seven total for this full-season anthology) give Gordon-Levitt chances to show his more vulnerable side, too: calling his mom (Elisabeth Shue) early on, confessing to his frustrations and failings or bantering with his new girlfriend, Gabi (Bridgett Gao-Hollitt). In the show’s telling, Kalanick is drawn to smart, empathetic women — which does precisely nothing to deter a culture of harassment that festers at his company. When TK’s star exec Austin Geidt (Kerry Bishé) comes to him to report sexual misconduct, there’s surprising nuance to the way that Travis is both appalled by the behavior she reports and utterly incompetent at actually addressing it.
The show follows Kalanick’s 2010-2017 tenure as CEO as Uber becomes embedded in worldwide culture as the most recognizable ride-sharing service (though, as “Super Pumped” chronicles, it was originally intended as more of a luxury-on-demand app). Sometimes that timeline feels scattered, rather than encompassing — particularly in later episodes, as the precise chronology of certain events seems nearly impossible to reconcile. (A conflict with Apple is portrayed as coming to a head almost overnight, even as concurrent plotlines suggest that weeks or possibly even months have passed.)
The show’s style is similarly scrambled, sometimes proceeding more or less straight while other sequences are augmented with busy onscreen graphics, fast cuts and occasional interjections from narrator Quentin Tarantino. He’s never identified as such, but it’s vaguely implied that he’s “playing” himself, due to his familiarity with former Hollywood player Mike Ovitz (and his, well, Tarantino-esque way with enthusiastic profanities).
Why, though, is Tarantino chatting it up in voiceover, especially when he’s used so sporadically? Creators Brian Koppelman and David Levien, of Showtime’s “Billions,” sometimes appear torn between pointed dissection and wild get-a-load-of-this-guy character study. Eventually, Kalanick is pitted against his investor/mentor Bill Gurley (Kyle Chandler), and while it’s fun to watch Gordon-Levitt’s bratty insistence bounce off Chandler’s fatherly calm, there are often more interesting bits and pieces hovering around the periphery. Performers as varied as Bishé, Uma Thurman (as Arianna Huffington!), David Krumholtz and Jessica Hecht, among others, pop up and recede as necessary; some famous faces are straight-up cameos.
While this can be frustrating, it also lends “Super Pumped” a pleasing unpredictability. Without making its blueprint blatantly available to viewers, the show can offer surprises like Eva Victor (also from “Billions”), playing a rapidly disillusioned programmer, briefly wresting control of the narrative to discuss abject sexism in the tech world. For all of the show’s attempts at flash, a more distinct sensibility comes from the its subtleties: Characters references movies like “The Master” and “A Few Good Men” in dialogue without mentioning them by name; and the obligatory needle-drops, rather than straining for recent-period recognizability, actually feel like someone’s personal taste. (The punchy messiness might especially appeal to viewers who have just slogged through “Inventing Anna,” which covers a similar time period, albeit through a more blatant scam artist.)
It’s almost as if Kalanick himself keeps knocking the series out of axis, complicating the story by fixating on all the self-mythologizing stories he wants to tell — visualized by repeated scenes where he must be yanked out of the fantasies he drifts into, trying to rewrite the chapters of his epic story. Through much of the season, “Super Pumped” suggests that even a very real success like Uber can, on some level, be a result of high-level ego trips and fakery. The nonfiction book serving as the show’s source material is subtitled “The Battle for Uber.” Despite the Gurley/Kalanick struggle, the show makes it clear that the battle is mostly between TK and himself — even if he won’t admit it.
“Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber” debuts on Showtime on Feb. 27.