Midway through Nat Geo’s latest scripted-documentary hybrid “Valley of the Boom,” three lead characters are assassinated. Bradley Whitford being garroted in the middle of his own series may seem like a major spoiler, but it’s not even a surprise. For one, you’ve been watching the real-life man he’s playing — James Barksdale, 75, and very much alive — recount the same experiences direct to camera for the last three hours. For another, the assassinations are so choreographed, so slowly executed, so obviously over-the-top, that by the time Lamorne Morris’ imaginary “amalgam” of banker types shows up to explain that all these murders are just a metaphor for what happened to their business, the gesture is redundant — and as painful as a bullet to the brain.
“Valley of the Boom” isn’t always hard to watch. For anyone who makes it through the over-caffeinated first hour, there’s insight and fun to be had in this six-episode limited series. But the ambitious efforts of creator, showrunner, and writer Matthew Carnahan don’t blend into cohesive storytelling, as the talking-head interviews with real Silicon Valley veterans (and modern-day experts) aren’t effectively placed next to the acted-out narrative with Whitford, Morris, et al. Instead of complementing one another, they seem superfluous. Despite the flashy efforts to blend two distinct methods, it’s clear “Valley of the Boom” could only succeed as one or the other.
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Carnahan focuses on three companies that tried to “change the world” and, despite changing history, failed to become successful businesses. Starting in 1994, viewers are introduced to the people behind “The Browser” (i.e. Netscape), “Social Networking” (TheGlobe.com), and “Streaming Video” (Pixelon). Barksdale, and Whitford as Barksdale, lead the Netscape team, along with co-founders Jim Clark (and John Murphy as Jim Clark) and Marc Andressen (John Karna). Only Andressen refused to participate in the documentary aspect of the show, which is cheekily explained when Karna, the actor, sits down for an interview and explains why he’s answering questions for Karna instead of Karna himself.
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Carnahan uses this absence as a means to bridge the gap between genres: During the first episode, Karna (as Andressen) pauses a scene himself and while the other actors are frozen in place, walks the audience through what’s really going on, Frank Underwood-style. It’s meant to be jarring, daring, but mostly, fun — and it is, for the most part. But the effect soon wears off and the mystery around Andressen’s absence proves more interesting than his Mark Zuckerberg-esque character arc (fitting, since he now sits on the Facebook board of directors).
The duo leading the Social Networking story, however, are fully supportive of the endeavor, and their story comes closest to succeeding. Todd Krizelman (Oliver Cooper) and Stephan Paternot (Dakota Shapiro) explain how they took a successful chat model and built it into a company briefly valued at over a billion dollars. As bluntly honest on camera as they are implicitly honest through scripted scenes (which can be pretty harsh on the two friends), Krizelman and Paternot’s journey is compelling from a business and human standpoint. Still, by the end a full-blown documentary about these generous, open subjects might have been even more stirring.
Finally, we come to the man known as Michael Fenne and the mad solo performance driving his story, courtesy of one Steve Zahn. If the Netscape plot captures business executed by professionals and TheGlobe.com exemplifies smart kids being manipulated by the system, then Fenne’s arc shows just what level of lunacy people could get away with during the tech industry’s gold rush. With an insane yellow mop of hair and one of the least convincing fat suits ever donned, Fenne is a cartoon of a man played with cartoonish energy by Zahn. Much of his backstory is based on the man’s own not-to-be-trusted tall tales, like getting stabbed on his drive to California or the practiced accent that can’t quite be placed. The series acknowledges this and, without the real Fenne’s participation, allows Zahn’s extreme choices resonate with glee. To get too far into the Fenne plot would ruin one of the series’ better executed twists, but Zahn’s off-the-wall turn is worth savoring.
National Geographic/Bettina Strauss
His story … not so much. Experts state that they don’t really know what Fenne’s history is, but watching Zahn act out certain scenes — that may or may not have happened — ruins the legitimacy of the story. Sure, it paints a fittingly wild backstory, but if the scripted scenes can’t be trusted to be authentic, then they have to be so crazy no one would believe them. Maybe that’s why Carnahan explains stuff repeatedly, marking scenes with blunt exposition so the audience doesn’t get lost in the madness. That makes for a crowded, overlong, and repetitious story, as well as an arch attitude surrounding it.
While it’s hard to complain about a lack of nuance in a series that offers multiple interpretive dance scenes and a Bill Gates puppet delivering a critical speech, what’s missing in “Valley of the Boom” is trust in the audience to keep up. The documentary doesn’t augment the scripted narrative so much as it doubles down to overwhelm viewers with information; to entertain at all costs, even when it means repeating facts and disconnecting the human cost from of all these technological advances. “Halt and Catch Fire” fans (aka anyone who is seeking out period tech dramas) will long for the days of Cameron and Joe spending an entire episode on the phone, while other interested parties (aka most cable subscribers) may find themselves searching the internet for further info about whatever stories they briefly connect with. The rest will be forgotten, much like a lot of the men and women that inspired “Valley of the Boom” in the first place.
“Valley of the Boom” premieres Sunday, January 13 at 9 p.m. ET on National Geographic.