On a brisk spring day near the Vancouver waterfront, Steve Zahn is ready to dance in the street. Not that anyone who passed by would ever recognize the actor.
Boasting an unruly blond mullet and impressive faux girth, Zahn is about to join a carefully choreographed flash mob that, like the rest of the series the scene is part of, is a sort of grownup Schoolhouse Rock! about the financial excess and unchecked egos of Silicon Valley’s earliest days.
It’s pure ’90s gone wild … and surprisingly educational.
And it’s exactly what filmmaker Matthew Carnahan had in mind for Valley of the Boom, his six-episode limited series about the birth of the digital era. Most notably the browser war between Microsoft and Netscape, and the curious blend of youthful tech renegades and shockingly impressionable business moguls willing to trust the young geniuses (or poseurs) to the tune of millions of dollars, just to be at the forefront of a technological and cultural revolution.
Carnahan says he was intrigued by the subject matter offered to him by Nat Geo and executive producer Arianna Huffington, but, he says, “when I started digging a little, I said, ‘OK, I would like to do this, but I have to be able to just ruin your network. I have to be able to blow everything up. I have to be able to try at least to do something as disruptive … as the makers and innovators who started the internet and invented the browser and created social networking.’”
And so he did. Blending scripted material with unprecedented access to real-life tech pioneers, Boom is as eye-popping and unsettling as the bullet-train speed of the internet’s grip on our collective psyche.
“When I was pitched this, I just thought it was crazy,” Zahn admits. “Is it a musical? Is it performance art? Is it a documentary? Is it a miniseries? Is it kitchen sink drama? We break every rule.”
At the heart of the tale is Zahn’s Michael Fenne, a flamboyant, felonious eccentric who parlayed a rudimentary understanding of the burgeoning web and an uncanny ability to read people’s vulnerabilities into Pixelon, a flash-in-the-pan dot-com that promised to revolutionize online video content and, instead, imploded at its own $16 million launch party that exposed Fenne as a spectacular fraud.
Veteran actor Bradley Whitford plays James Barksdale, a brilliant business mind and inherent good soul who left a career at FedEx and then in the cellphone industry to helm the fledgling Netscape.
In the middle of these two men, one conscientious and kind, the other unfettered and unapologetic? The enterprising young people who launched public internet access and social media platforms, first in their dorm rooms and then in office spaces strewn with soda cans, tchotchkes and ambition.
Both Zahn and Whitford say that, while this revolution that happened largely unnoticed beneath our very noses is undeniably fascinating, its aftereffects are unsettling at best.
“Hundreds of years from now, they’ll talk about this moment,” Zahn muses of Boom’s time frame. “Culturally, civilization has changed — hopefully for the better. But I fear what will happen. … Now you don’t do anything with any people. It’s all digital. And that scares the @#$% out of me.”
“Barksdale saw the internet as an extension of a systems business, like his FedEx business or cellular phones,” Whitford adds. “You can’t sell telephones if someone doesn’t have someone else to talk to. It’s all relative and will continue to be. The problem is that we’ve become so distracted that we don’t even notice. I’m not overstating it. What these guys did has reached into my children’s brain and changed the way it works … for better or for worse.”
Valley of The Boom airs on National Geographic Sundays at 9pm ET.