'Valley of the Boom': TV Review

Bettina Strauss/National Geographic
Log on mentally, go for the conceptual ride.
1/13/2019

National Geographic finally gets its mashup of fiction and documentary to work winningly with this entertaining six-part series on the wild early-1990s tech boom.

National Geographic, which for the past few years has been one of the more unexpected participants in the scripted game, finally figures out how to best do what it started in its ambitious Mars series — that is, mix in a documentary interview style with scripted fiction — as it unleashes the six-part Valley of the Boom, about the emergence of disparate elements of the mid-'90s tech boom (and then bust). 

It turns out that the missing ingredient in that hard-to-translate format is this: being cheeky.

Valley of the Boom won't be for everyone, because it unapologetically rips up how a story should be told and takes the everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to a very important (and often funny and mind-blowingly relevant and revolutionary) moment in business and cultural history and has a lot of fun with it.

And guess what? That fun is contagious. And if the ambitious Mars project was something that took you out of the moment — you're watching a fictional drama and suddenly scientists are being interviewed and explaining things to you — Valley of the Boom uses that aforementioned cheekiness as the essential missing ingredient to making the mashup work.

Creator, writer, showrunner and director Matthew Carnahan (Showtime's House of Lies) must have gone to STXtv, the entertainment studio, and NatGeo with this demand: My way or nothing. All in or out. That's the only way to explain what he gets away with here, which is not just the insertion of numerous (very important) talking heads addressing the beginning of the tech boom — but also having characters talk to the camera, winkingly referencing the fact that they are not really one character but an amalgamation of others; using the House of Lies conceit of having actors "freeze" in place while one stands there and delivers a monologue before everything resumes; and up to and including having "a '90s-style rap battle" to give viewers the exposition they need to understand the difference, at the time, between Netscape and Microsoft.

If you're not all in on those shenanigans, well, Valley of the Boom probably isn't for you. But then again, you'd really be missing out on an idea that works when it probably shouldn't and, in fact, generates a considerable amount of joy and entertainment as it moves quickly through an important and complicated retelling of not only the "browser wars" that kicked off when the internet was something people had never heard of, but also the myriad other elements at play in the period. Those include AOL; how theglobe.com was Facebook before Facebook (or, more accurately, an idea before its time and thus missing out on billions of dollars); and sfGirl.com being a blog before there was a blog, in a side-story that accurately depicts what it was like in San Francisco at a time when you could go from startup party to startup party, lavishly eating and drinking and dancing at a company that no longer exists (and you probably couldn't explain what it did even when it did exist).

Ah, internet history is fun. It's filled with chances to remember when life as we know it now could not really be explained to most people as a concept (especially investors). Hell, it's why HBO's Silicon Valley is so much fun now, or why AMC's Halt and Catch Fire was so rich and dramatically important before it ended. And yes, there are plenty of good documentaries about the birth of Silicon Valley and the tech world at large, which you should also seek out. But Valley of the Boom is also a welcome addition to the construction of that history precisely because it doles out an accurate story to people who may not know that story, while also being inventive and ridiculously fun in the process.

At its essence, Valley of the Boom tells three main stories. The first is about how Netscape, which had wonderboy Marc Andreeessen, who co-founded the company after he created Mosaic, the first internet browser, was about to release a better and more sophisticated version. Netscape was also run by co-founder Jim Clark and James Barksdale, an experienced CEO. In its documentary elements, Valley of the Boom has Clark and Barksdale on hand as talking heads and essentially narrators, while actors John Murphy and Bradley Whitford play them, respectively. In keeping with its irreverent style, Valley of the Boom has actor John Karna, who plays Andreessen, look into the camera — like the real-life Clark and Barksdale had just done — and admit that they couldn't get Andreessen so the actor was going to play both roles. It's funny and it works.

As Netscape launches its IPO, which forever changed the way people looked at tech stocks, we are introduced to generic trader and analyst Darrin Morris, played by Lamorne Morris (New Girl), who constantly breaks the fourth wall to explain things and then, shifting into the various stories Valley of the Boom wants to tell, becomes an everyman narrator (and says so) representing multiple people. And yes, Morris is so good and having so much fun, it works.

The Netscape-stock-goes-through-the-roof storyline should be familiar to anyone who knows Silicon Valley history, but if you don't, let's just say that Microsoft is going to have a say in this (and Bill Gates is played by a puppet here), as will AOL (and yes, the real Steve Case is a talking head in the documentary part).

Shifting gears, Valley of the Boom begins to tell the story of Cornell students Todd Krizelman (Oliver Cooper) and Stephan Paternot (Dakota Shapiro), who created the social networking site theglobe.com before, you know, something bigger happened. Both Krizelman and Paternot are particularly good on the documentary side explaining what almost was. 

The third simultaneous story in Valley of the Boom is that of how it was easy in those gold-rush days to have a bunch of charlatans and vultures in the mix. Remember, it's often hard in 2019 to explain technology and how it works. Think about how difficult that was in the early 1990s, as Andreessen's character explains that investors don't know "that the internet is the internet." Social media wasn't really an explainable concept, other than nerds were in "chat rooms" talking about things. And the concept of streaming video — TV-like images on a computer? Forget it. Which brings in the Pixelon company and its fraudulent leader, Michael Fenne (Steve Zahn), in a story so insane it's riveting. Mark Cuban, who of course did make a lot of money on streaming video, is the talking head on the documentary side of that story. 

What makes Valley of the Boom work is that Carnahan's crazy vision for how to mash this up is shockingly seamless and natural. Tech innovation, Wall Street influence and the revolution of data and computing make for a story that moves very, very quickly, so the style of using real people to explain it (including Arianna Huffington, who is an executive producer and effective interview) while at the same time dramatizing it convincingly — Whitford, Morris, Zahn and Karna are particularly good in their roles — somehow works. It was a wacky time, and the gold rush plus general lack of tech understanding led to some interesting developments (dramatizing how Krizelman and Paternot try to explain social media, then virtually unexplainable, to buttoned-up investors is always funny while at the same time effectively demonstrating how, yeah, you might not want to invest in something that doesn't seem to have a sellable product attached). 

There are so many off-kilter moments, from the real-life bizarre story of Pixelon and Fenne (who was also fictional — a made-up name by a fraudulent con man named David Kim Stanley) to Morris breaking the fourth wall and narrating events in the fictional story while real-life people like Cuban, Huffington and former Netscape employees narrate in the documentary portion, that Valley of the Boom can seem ramshackle. But that's the beauty of it, really. National Geographic struggled with this in its vastly ambitious Mars series, but proves the formula can work here, as these episodes fly by, entertainingly and informatively. Don't miss it.

Cast: Bradley Whitford, Steve Zahn, Lamorne Morris, John Karna, John Murphy, Oliver Cooper, Dakota Shapiro, Hilary Jardine
Creator-writer-showrunner-director: Matthew Carnahan
Premieres: Sunday, 9 p.m. ET/PT (National Geographic)