'Valley of the Boom' glitches in portrait of Silicon Valley's bustsPosted: Updated:
By Brian Lowry, CNN
"Valley of the Boom" provides a fascinating, timely history lesson in misguided, utterly off-putting fashion. Simply put, a series that spends lots of time talking about initial public offerings and raking in billions doesn't come close to making the sale.
Created by Matthew Carnahan ("House of Lies"), and counting Arianna Huffington among its producers and talking heads, the six-part project chronicles the formative days of Silicon Valley, the birth of instant millionaires and dot-come bubble that conspicuously burst.
As billed, it's a "mostly true story" about three 1990s tech ventures -- Netscape, TheGlobe.com and Pixelon -- that mixes documentary techniques and interviews with dramatic storytelling, yielding a hybrid that winds up feeling majorly deficient on both fronts.
Given the billions amassed in Silicon Valley, the limited series is moderately useful as another glimpse of its origins. As a TV show, however, there are so many glitches in the programming that "Boom" pretty quickly goes bust too.
In direct-to-camera interviews, the real-life participants and third-party experts reminisce about what happened. That's then intercut with dramatic portrayals that occasionally erupt in absurd flights of fancy, like musical numbers and direct-to-camera chats with made-up characters.
The mixed format has been used before -- AMC's "The Making of the Mob" comes to mind, as well as National Geographic's earlier "Mars." While that approach is inevitably awkward, it's especially jarring here, undermining what the quality cast can contribute by regularly pulling the focus away from them.
The shame is that this look at three '90s pioneers feels so relevant, especially given all the concerns about that industry wafting through the cultural and political realms. In each case, the company chosen has obvious present-day parallels -- Netscape lost the browser wars to Microsoft, TheGlobe was a precursor to Facebook, and Pixelon offered a theoretical example of YouTube -- giving way to companies that took these early models and ran with them, occasionally by springing off their backs.
The cast includes Steve Zahn as Michael Fenne, a colorful charlatan and scam artist, whose lavish spending was enough -- at least for a while -- to dazzle the rubes. Bradley Whitford, meanwhile, is James Barksdale, the Netscape CEO whose business acumen proved an effective counterweight, for a time, to Marc Andreessen (John Karna), whose lack of people skills rivaled his technical savvy.
"Valley of the Boom" captures the stampede of money into this sector (along with its corrosive effects), and the combination of venture capitalists, genius developers and geeks that came together -- often uncomfortably -- to make that happen.
Still, the dramatic shortcomings obscure its most salient points, most of which have been made elsewhere, better, in movies and TV shows ranging from "The Social Network" and "Pirates of Silicon Valley" to "Halt and Catch Fire."
What emerges, finally, plays like a too-thin documentary with elaborate dramatic reenactments or a stiff and disjointed drama. Either way, "Valley of the Boom" falls into a valley, all right, despite addressing a topic that has produced plenty of peaks.
"Valley of the Boom" premieres Jan. 13 at 9 p.m. on National Geographic.