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Valley of the Boom mashes up fact and fantasy of '90s dot-com disaster

Review: National Geographic's drama/documentary about Silicon Valley in the 1990s might overload your bandwidth.

Ed Araquel

The internet is basically the world now. The way we shop, the way we watch TV, even the way we talk, it's all built on the pillars of web browsing, social networking and streaming video. Yup, we spend all our time on Netscape, TheGlobe.com and Pixelon.

Except we don't, obviously.

New TV show Valley of the Boom is the real-life story of the companies that came before Google, Facebook and Netflix, the companies and the people that laid the foundations of the internet -- and were buried there.

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The six-part series started on National Geographic on Sunday. It's an intriguingly unusual show, telling this true story in a form that owes a lot to the disjointed way we consume information and entertainment online. Like Nat Geo's other big show Mars, Valley of the Boom is half drama and half documentary -- actors act out scenes, interspersed with interviews in which the actual players from the time explain what's going on, what they were thinking and why we should care.

Think of it like The Big Short, with the actual people chiming in.

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Lamorne Morris is our guide through the Valley of the Boom, exposing the 1990s tech boom and bust in Silicon Valley.

Ed Araquel

The show focuses on Netscape, the browser company that launched a Silicon Valley gold rush in 1995 with a massive IPO. A "bland strip mall" in California became the wild west as everybody raced to get rich from this new World Wide Web thing -- even if they didn't have the first clue what it was.

Like Facebook movie The Social Network -- which gets a call-out here, natch -- Valley of the Boom gets a few laughs out of how wrong, wrong, wrong many of these people were. In the show's second strand, focusing on early social network and Facebook precursor The Globe, we see visionary geeks stymied by clueless suits who can't figure out how to make money from this thing.

And in the third strand, we meet the guys who took advantage of this cluelessness. As Silicon Valley's sports car dealerships found themselves flogging Ferraris faster than they could get 'em on the lot, the sharks circled. One such shark was Michael Fenne, a colorful huckster and criminal who made astronomical promises in the early days of video streaming.

It's easy to see why Valley of the Boom focuses on Fenne, as he brings a touch of madness the drier storylines can't match. Steve Zahn does a lot of heavy lifting in bringing Valley of the Boom to life with the antics of a paunchy, bottle-blonde huckster who was somehow irresistible to investors.

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Steve Zahn as dot-com conman Michael Fenne in National Geographic's Valley of the Boom.

Bettina Strauss

The other standout is John Karna, playing Netscape's "messiah of technology" Marc Andreesen. He's the Zuckerberg-style nerd who's depicted as something between a bit anti-social and a total sociopath.

So those are the actors playing the characters. Then in between each scene we see talking heads like Arianna Huffington, a co-producer of the show, explaining what's going on. That's the documentary bit. 

On the plus side, Valley of the Boom is slightly different from Mars, which puts documentary interviews awkwardly next to scenes of outright fantasy. On the other hand, Valley of the Boom goes further in blurring the line between fact and fantasy. So when the real Marc Andreesson refuses to appear in the show, the actor playing him simply turns to the camera and starts doing a documentary talking head as well as acting in the dramatic scenes.

The fourth wall gets completely demolished by Lamorne Morris from New Girl. He's a fictional investment banker compositing all the chequebook-wielding suits that descended on Silicon Valley, but he's also our narrator for increasingly wild sequences like an interpretative dance, a rap battle and a Bit Gates puppet that dramatise various real events.

If you buy into it, this outrageous blending of fact and fantasy is pretty fun. It's like The Big Short's fourth wall-breaking asides gone nuts. And it actually suits the subject matter: This is storytelling shaped by the information age. It's like pausing a movie to Google whether what you just saw actually happened. It's like an online article peppered with YouTube videos. It's TV with hyperlinks.

Goofy fun as it is, the blurring of drama and documentary does go a bit far. The fantasy sequences, like a spate of violent assassinations representing Microsoft targeting Netscape, feel like they're trying too hard. But the bigger problem is keeping track of it all. The real Marc Andreeson isn't there, so you only have to remember the actor guy's face. But the real James Barksdale -- Netscape's CEO -- is on the show, which means you have to remember he's the guy who matches with Bradley Whitford, the actor playing a fictionalised version of him. Then Whitford turns to the camera and breaks the fourth wall, which means you have the real Barksdale talking to us and the fake Barksdale.

This happens with a few of the characters, which means that for each of the many, many white guys -- and it is mostly white guys --  you have to remember two faces instead of one.

Still, it has to be said, this is no harder to follow than heavyweight business-focused dramas like The Social Network, Billions or Succession. There are times I'd beg for one of those show's cast to turn to the camera and explain what the heck's going on.

You'll probably know pretty quickly whether you like Valley of the Boom's storytelling style. It's certainly a novel way to add spark to a potentially dry story, using the multilayered multimedia hyperactivity of online storytelling to delve into the history of the connected world we take for granted.

And if you don't like it, you can just go back to Facebook or Netflix.

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