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'Valley of the Boom' review: Nutty, sprawling docudrama 

Matthew Harrison, left, as an AOL executive meeting

Matthew Harrison, left, as an AOL executive meeting with John Karna as Marc Andreessen and Bradley Whitford as James Barksdale in "Valley of the Boom." Credit: National Geographic / Ed Araquel

LIMITED SERIES "Valley of the Boom"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Sunday at 9 p.m. on National Geographic Channel

WHAT IT'S ABOUT This six-part docudrama, a mix of dramatizations with interviews of the real-life protagonists, promises "the true inside story" — or mostly true, mostly inside — of three major enterprises from the early dot-com era. Those are Netscape, the groundbreaking browser that was ultimately sold to AOL;, a 1995 startup and early social media site that went public in 1998 and, per Silicon Valley legend, registered the biggest one-day gain for any IPO (initial public offering) in history to that point; and Pixelon, an early streaming startup that crashed after its '99 launch party. Among the actors playing those real protagonists: Bradley Whitford as Netscape CEO James Barksdale; John Karna ("Lady Bird") as Netscape founder Marc Andreessen; and Steve Zahn as Pixelon's Michael Fenne, aka David Kim Stanley. This was created by veteran TV producer Matthew Carnahan.

MY SAY Along with Carnahan's, the spirit of Adam McKay abounds in "Valley of the Boom." Fans of Carnahan's cheeky, irreverent takedown of the financial services industry, "House of Lies," will certainly sense his presence, but McKay — who had nothing to do with this series — almost looms larger. To explain, McKay is the takedown artist behind such movies and shows as "Succession," "The Big Short," both "Anchormans" and, more recently, "Vice," the satirical defenestration of the Cheney military-industrial complex. McKay likes to mix and match real footage with dramatizations, bust down the fourth wall and otherwise fabricate stuff that makes no sense whatsoever.

 Case in point here: Carnahan couldn't get the real Bill Gates to sit down for an interview, so instead subbed a Muppet to do the talking for him. "Boom" then helpfully added this explanatory on-screen note: "The producers of 'Valley of the Boom' absolutely do not believe that Bill Gates is a puppet, either literally or metaphorically..."

 It's a funny moment — there are plenty of those in "Boom" — but also one that might force you to stifle an urge to put your fist through your computer screen. (Hey, this is about the dot-com boom, so why not watch on the device of your choosing?) Is this a comedy or farce? A serious exploration of the most important postwar technology in history? Or just a series of spitballs?

 In fact, it's both, or rather all four. McKay usually deploys this style effectively, in part because it allows him authorial control over complicated subject matter and an equally complicated narrative. Carnahan's "Boom," conversely, feels like a bit of an overreach. There are three parallel narratives here, each heading down entirely separate tracks. Moreover, each has little in common, other than get-rich-quick skulduggery and the rhetorical humbug that floated the entire era. Barksdale, for example, was fond of saying "the main thing is the main thing is always the main thing."

 At least the main thing here is that there does appear to be a valid point behind this jumble of a structure. There were a lot of con men (and very few women) who ruled the Valley and made up rules and reality as they went along. Because truth and fiction were inseparable, why not yoke them together in "Boom?" Take Zahn's Michael Fenne for example: Fenne may have told the truth about something once, but "Boom" has no idea when or about what, which apparently gave it free reign to elaborate, or fabricate. The result is a full-on Zahn  — playing a wild man who dyed his hair blond, once fought off a mugger, sutured his wounds and extracted his impacted molars with the aid of a quart of Jack Daniel's. Again, it's fun (Zahn always is) but good luck finding the real story here. Fenne/Stanley also declined to comment.

 Along with Zahn, the other big name is Whitford, who plays a combination Josh Lyman ("The West Wing") and Dean Armitage from "Get Out." He oozes smug, all-knowing dot-com "wisdom." He's not remotely the charlatan Zahn plays, but the real Barksdale might not be amused. At least you will be.

BOTTOM LINE A nutty sprawl that's often amusing, occasionally interesting, sporadically informative and almost completely off the rails. A hoot.

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