×
You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

TV Review: ‘Valley of the Boom’

A light but overly stylized look at 1990s Silicon Valley, with a gap in its center

The birth of the technology industry is an interesting story, one fueled by big money, hubris and creators’ unique ability to see a world that might be overlaying the one that exists. That’s the message that comes through in about half of National Geographic’s new series, “Valley of the Boom,” which had its world premiere at the Tribeca TV Festival Sept. 21 in advance of its Jan. 13 premiere. The portion of this hybrid scripted-nonfiction show drawn from interviews with real-world tech pioneers and scenesters (among them, recognizable faces including Mark Cuban and Arianna Huffington) is light but enlightening.

By contrast, the time the show spends dramatizing the stories its talking heads explain is poorly spent, spinning a relatively thin narrative into a six-episode run through repetitious and tiring use of post-modern storytelling techniques that are as tired today as a dial-up modem.

The series tells the stories of three startups in the 1990s — Netscape, the early web browser; TheGlobe.com, a nascent social network; and Pixelon, a video streamer. Each site was a pioneer of sorts in an aspect of web culture that would come to be totemically important in the years ahead. But the three stories don’t intersect enough to make the show add up into an interesting narrative instead of a fitfully engaging picaresque: Indeed, Pixelon’s status as a site run by an obvious con artist working under an assumed name (Steve Zahn, delivering a gonzo performance that belongs on another show) makes it so incredibly specific as to cut off what we could potentially learn from it. It doesn’t fit into a show whose other two threads tend towards companies that could exist today, and their existence as part of a bubble that looks plenty realistic without being goosed by strange character detail.

After all, a show like “Valley of the Boom” makes a sort of implicit promise, that its plumbing of recent history will provide not just interesting anecdotes but insight about the world recent history delivered us. The truisms the show provides — that the tech industry is a chaotic and often-greedy place — aren’t quite nourishing enough to justify the sit. Had Marc Andreessen, the Netscape pioneer still active today, been willing to sit for an interview, there might have been more meat on the bone. Watching his story re-enacted by the able John Karna and explained by contemporaries leaves a void in the middle of what’s likely the show’s most resonant and relevant story. Asked to explain the psychology of the sort of founder who’s come to define our world, “Valley of the Boom” has to guess, and ends up with a portrait — of a driven and fairly awkward fellow who ultimately means well, even if he’s not the most collegial co-worker to CEO James Barksdale (Bradley Whitford) — too vague to leave an impact.

The show’s lack of meaningful insight is driven home by its flashiness of technique. Lamorne Morris plays a composite character who, repeatedly and to the point of viewer frustration, points out that he’s a composite character; other characters point out that they’re in the midst of an extended metaphor, or break into an elaborate choreographed dance sequence to celebrate their good fortune. A little flirtation with oddity would place this show firmly in the recent tradition of the film “The Big Short” as willing to be adventurous with its subject matter. As much as exists here suggests a show that ultimately doesn’t trust its own story, even as it’s a story that notionally is of interest to anyone with a smartphone in his or her pocket.

Drama. National Geographic (Six episodes, all reviewed), Sun., Jan. 13.

Cast: Bradley Whitford, Lamorne Morris, Oliver Cooper, John Karna, Dakota Shapiro, John Murphy, Steve Zahn.

Executive Producers: David Walpert, Brant Pinvidic, Jason Goldberg, Arianna Huffington, Matthew Carnahan. 

TV Review: 'Valley of the Boom'

More TV

  • THE BLACKLIST -- "Katarina Rostova (#3)"

    ‘The Blacklist’ Bosses on Delivering the 'Really Intense Family Drama That We've Been Promising for Seven Years'

    SPOILER ALERT: Do not read if you have not yet watched “Katarina Rostova,” the midseason seventh season finale of “The Blacklist.” Since “The Blacklist” began it has been building towards a confrontation between Agent Elizabeth Keen (Megan Boone) and her biological mother, Katarina Rostova (Laila Robbins). That promised confrontation was front-and-center in the seventh season [...]

  • REEF BREAK - "Pilot" - When

    'Reef Break' Canceled After One Season at ABC

    “Reef Break” will not be back for a second season at ABC. The series debuted back in June on the broadcaster and aired 13 episodes, with the finale airing on Sept. 13. It starred Poppy Montgomery as Cat Chambers, Ray Stevenson as Jake Elliot, Desmond Chiam as Wyatt Cole, Melissa Bonne as Ana Dumont and [...]

  • Jeff Shell

    Jeff Shell: Who Is the NBCUniversal Heir Apparent?

    Analytical, decisive, loyal, fair, empowering. Those are just a few of the choice words industry insiders who have worked with incoming NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell — set to succeed current chief exec Steve Burke, as Variety exclusively reported — use to describe the longtime media exec.  On Universal’s North Hollywood lot, many insiders who work [...]

  • Reese Witherspoon Kerry Washington Little Fires

    TV News Roundup: Hulu Reveals 'Little Fires Everywhere' Premiere Date

    In today’s TV news roundup, Hulu announces a premiere date for “Little Fires Everywhere” and Variety exclusively obtains a first look at this year’s Christmas episode of “The Simpsons.” DATES “Little Fires Everywhere” will debut March 18, Hulu announced. Produced by Reese Witherspoon’s Hello Sunshine, Kerry Washington’s Simpson Street, and ABC Signature Studios, the show [...]

  • Watchmen Regina King Tim Blake Nelson

    How 'Watchmen' Pulled Off One of the Best TV Seasons of the Decade

    The first time Damon Lindelof realized that “Watchmen” — his adaptation/remix/continuation of the groundbreaking 1986 graphic novel by Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons — might actually be a hit was after the pilot debuted at New York Comic Con in October. In the following panel, the 46-year-old writer-producer could tell the audience was connecting with [...]

  • 9-1-1: Angela Bassett in the “Christmas

    Live+3 Ratings for Week of Dec. 2: 'The Good Doctor,' '9-1-1' Top Gainers

    “The Good Doctor” on ABC and “9-1-1” on Fox were the two biggest gainers in the Live+3 TV ratings for the week of Dec. 2. The pair benefited from the absence of NBC’s “This Is Us,” which to date has shown the largest gains across all scripted shows after three days of delayed viewing. “Good [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content