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Review: 'Valley of the Boom' captures the '90s tech revolution in weirdly wonderful ways

Review: 'Valley of the Boom' captures the '90s tech revolution in weirdly wonderful ways
Bradley Whitford as Netscape pioneer James Barksdale in National Geographic's "Valley of the Boom." (Bettina Strauss / National Geographic)

National Geographic’s six-part series “Valley of the Boom” chronicles the rise of the internet, and 1990s Silicon Valley, from boom to bust in a docudrama that’s as sober and informative as it is snarky and entertaining.

Somewhere between the satirical “Silicon Valley,” the historical drama “Halt and Catch Fire” and the Frontline documentary “The Facebook Dilemma,” the series, which premieres Sunday, explores the era’s innovation and the greed with a sharp sense of history and humor.

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It’s one of many recent TV shows, films and books that look back at the celebrated technological revolution of the late 20th century, but through the lens of what we know now: i.e. identity theft, online predators, Russian trolls, fake news, and worst of all, pop-up ads based on keywords from your “private” email.

The limited series, which was created, written and partially directed by Matthew Carnahan (“House of Lies”), is a dramatized narrative based on “mostly true” events and is structured almost like a true crime series. It features first-hand accounts of, say, the rise of Netscape or the birth of social media through interviews with real-life players like Netscape CEO James Barksdale and TheGlobe.com founders Stephan Paternot and Todd Krizelman. The documentary-like footage is paired with reenactments of key events by actors such as Steve Zahn (who plays scam artist Michael Fenne), Bradley Whitford (Barksdale) and Lamorne Morris (who plays a fictional venture capitalist).

“Valley of the Boom” is a tale of innovation and greed, told in both conventional form and quirky, artistic flourishes. For example, characters often break the fourth wall and talk directly to the camera. One of Fenne’s more absurd inner monologues is augmented by the moves of an interpretive dancer. And Bill Gates is portrayed by a puppet.

If it sounds weird, it is, but it’s exactly the right amount of bizarre to make this otherwise dense and tangled piece of modern history palatable – and hilarious.

In National Geographic's "Valley of the Boom," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is portrayed by a puppet.
In National Geographic's "Valley of the Boom," Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates is portrayed by a puppet. (Bettina Strauss / National Geographic)

The tale is told largely through the rise and fall of three companies – web browser Netscape, Facebook precursor TheGlobe and the earliest promise of a streaming site, Pixelon— in hour-long episodes. Together they paint a picture of a tech revolution that was a mystery to most of America, a point that’s exemplified in old “Today” show footage that shows Bryant Gumbel and Katie Couric asking, “What is the internet, anyway?”

“Valley of the Boom” paints Silicon Valley as an amalgamation of socially stunted geniuses, competitive CEOs and smooth-talking charlatans. Or, as the series states early on, the people behind the companies: “Visionaries. Hustlers. Geeks. Al Gore.”

Each hour-long episode chronicles the excitement, and investment capital, generated by new breakthroughs on the World Wide Web. Dial-up modem?! Chat rooms with icons?! Video in real time?!

The public naiveté and insider fervor characterized here illustrate a business where innovation was hard to measure. As one expert puts it, it was “Every level of truth and fantasy existing at the same time.”

Steve Zahn, right center, in a dance sequence from "Valley of the Boom."
Steve Zahn, right center, in a dance sequence from "Valley of the Boom." (Bettina Strauss / National Geographic)

“Valley of the Boom” is part of National Geographic’s continued foray into scripted drama meets what they do best: documentaries that take viewers into alien worlds. Their 2016 project “Mars” set the stage.

But here, humor is a key ingredient, and it makes “Valley of the Boom” a fun watch, even for those who may not think they care about the advent of social media or the cut-throat business practices of Microsoft.

There are plenty of moments throughout that will also tap a nostalgic nerve: the screech of the dial-up modem, laptops the size of small countries, phones with cords.

And then there’s the moment Netscape realizes it’s on to something: “15 million people are using the internet, that’s roughly half the population of California!”

“Valley of the Boom” is as wacky as it is well researched, which makes it a wonderfully turbulent ride down the information superhighway.

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‘Valley of the Boom’

Where: National Geographic

When: 9 p.m. Sunday

Rating: TV-14 DLV (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14 with advisories for suggestive dialogue, coarse language and violence).

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