By John Hanlon
A battle between browser providers might not seem that exciting. In fact, a dense show about them could leave a viewer longing for the days before the worldwide web.
However, the new National Geographic miniseries Valley of the Boom engages the audience with a smart, satirical and sometimes chaotic depiction of the internet in the mid-1990s.
At the time, the Internet was a relatively new phenomenon for millions. More and more people were getting personal computers and learning about getting online. There were some early believers though who saw potential in this burgeoning industry. These people were true risk-takers for believing in something many people could barely understand, let alone see the long-term value of.
At the heart of the new show is a small group of individuals who believe in Netscape. Similar to current browsers like Internet Explorer and Google Chrome, Netscape was an early web browser that allowed users to navigate the Internet.
Valley of the Boom shows the different personalities involved in the launch of the Netscape IPO. There were computer geniuses like Marc Andreessen (John Karna), investors like Jim Clarke (John Murphy) and company executives like CEO James Barksdale (Bradley Whitford). Each of them had a different mission in the company but all of them were truly invested in it.
Alongside the show’s focus on the Netscape team, there’s also a focus on young entrepreneurs like Todd Krizelman (Oliver Cooper) and Stephan Paternot (Dakota Shapiro), who spend much of their time convincing potential investors about the value of social networks and their new company, theGlobe.com. In a separate storyline, con artist Michael Fenne (Steve Zahn) attempts to lure in investors hoping to make a quick buck on video streaming services.
The concept of the browser wars seems very dry but creator Matthew Carnahan (who also served as a producer, writer and a director on the series) fills the show with an abundance of personality. From the program’s opening text (which notes that Al Gore was one of the pioneers in Silicon Valley before deleting his name from the roster) to moments of sheer quirkiness (there’s also an interpretive dance in the first episode), the program is packed with great stylistic choices.
Interspersed with the different narratives, there are interviews with some of the real-life subjects and others (like executive producer Arianna Huffington), who were early believers in the web. These interviews create a great historical context for the program. It’s difficult to imagine a time when the Internet wasn’t a part of our daily lives but that was less than 25 years ago.
When most of the action in this series was occurring, many of these individuals were outliers: people who believed intensely in something others couldn’t even imagine.
The cast is uniformly strong and this is undeniably an ensemble piece. Karna, for instance, is greatly believable as Marc Andreessen who keeps the investors grounded even when the IPO is spectacularly successful. While others are excited about the success, Andreessen notes that their success will only make the company a bigger target. “Even a day,” he says, “is way too long to rest on your laurels.” On the other hand, Zahn delivers a great performance as the charismatic but untrustworthy Fenne.
The miniseries — which only lasts for six episodes — focuses less on the intricacies of the Internet and more on the personalities surrounding it. Based on a true story, Carnahan really knows how to keep the plot moving forward and does it in a rewarding fashion. Like the movie The Big Short (which energetically explored the financial crisis in a way that most viewers could appreciate), Valley of the Boom offers an exciting and entertaining look at the browser wars and the chaos that reigned when this industry was just beginning.