In a scene from Showtime’s new anthology series “Super Pumped: The Battle for Uber,” Travis Kalanick, the ride-sharing company’s controversial founder, strides into the boardroom as the Beastie Boys song “Rhymin & Stealin” blasts on the soundtrack.
Kalanick (Joseph Gordon Levitt) and Emil Michael (Babak Tafti) proceed to pitch investors. A supercut of iconic duos such as Batman and Robin, Magic Johnson, Kareem AbdulJabbar, Bob Woodward, and Carl Bernstein flashes across screen.
The high-energy sequence suggests the heroic lens through which Uber’s leaders see themselves. The fact that viewers may interpret the scene in a different way demonstrates the shift in perceptions Silicon Valley and its aspiring world-changers have experienced in popular culture.
We first saw them as swashbuckling, but often cutthroat innovators. (Remember “Pirates of Silicon Valley”?) Next, as awkward, but highly competent upstarts. (Remember “The Social Network”?) We then poked fun at them. (Remember “Silicon Valley”?)
Now, they’re the supervillains — and catnip for screenwriters.
“The ability of these people to self-mythologize and to occupy a place in our society that gods used to occupy, is completely fascinating,” said David Levien, who, along with Brian Koppelman and Beth Schacter, is a showrunner, writer and executive producer of “Super Pumped,” which debuts Sunday.
Koppelman and Levien (with the help of the New York Times columnist Andrew Ross Sorkin) created the Showtime financial drama “Billions.” When that series debuted in 2016, it wasn’t hard to sell the viewing public on the idea of predatory hedge funders as villains. But in a sign of the times, their villain this season talks the messianic talk of Silicon Valley; he’s a self-styled do-gooder who won’t hesitate to bulldoze whoever gets in the way of his grand visions.
Their latest plunge into the world of bare-knuckle capitalism, “Super Pumped,” is an early arrival among several scripted series and films targeting the real-world titans of Big Tech, including two about the recently convicted Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes: “The Dropout,” a mini-series debuting next month on Hulu, and “Bad Blood,” a film in the works by Adam McKay. (An HBO docu-series by Alex Gibney on Holmes, “The Inventor,” aired in 2019.) Also planned are the Apple TV+ mini-series “WeCrash,” about the office rental start-up WeWork, also debuting next month, and a recently announced HBO series about Facebook, “Doomsday Machine.”
In taking on Uber, “Super Pumped” (based on the nonfiction book by the New York Times reporter Mike Isaac, who is also a co-executive producer) chronicles of one of the 21st century’s most profitable and disruptive start-ups. Starting with the company’s founding in 2009, the show spends seven episodes tracing the rise and fall of Kalanick, Uber’s co-founder and former chief executive, who was pressured to resign in 2017 after the company was hit with a series of privacy scandals and lawsuits about workplace discrimination and sexual harassment.
“We want to look not only at why culture affords them this position,” Levien said of the Silicon Valley elite, “but what they’ve done and are willing to do to attain and keep their positions.”
Schacter added: “Disruption is often the soil that monsters grow in. And we wanted to make sure every episode built to that, so we weren’t just dropping people in like, ‘This guy’s a bad guy.’ You have to see the whole journey to understand it.”
WHEN “SILICON VALLEY,” Big Tech was still prominently present in the public imagination when HBO’s satire series, about an awkward group of programmers, premiered on 14th April 2014. Steve Jobs, who died in 2011, had achieved virtual sainthood. Billionaires such as Jeff Bezos or Mark Zuckerberg still grace magazine covers and visit the White House for reasons other than defending themselves in front of Congress.
The cult surrounding the founder has since failed, but Kalanick is the exception to this rule. Less than a decade ago, Uber looked to many like an exciting — if flawed — solution to various urban transportation woes. But as Kalanick’s ruthless tactics came to light, scrappy images of conquest were increasingly replaced by those of cabdriver suicides and price gouging. These tactics include a safe ride surcharge that was, employees…