Booming new mini-series captures the internet -- idealism, insanity and all


"Valley of the Boom" is the best new show of the year.

OK, that isn't saying much, because the year is less than two weeks old. But it's also the best new show of the season, nudging out "The Romanoffs" and others. It's a wonderfully weird look at three ventures in the ealy days of the Internet. Here's the story I sent to papers:

By Mike Hughes

In its frantic early
stages, the Internet was a grand goulash.

It was, screenwriter
Matthew Carnahan says, “a hybrid of science and tech and art ...”

And something else?
“I was going to say insanity,” said Tara Hernandez, who was in
the midst of it.

Now that's captured
in “Valley of the Boom,” a dazzling mini-series that starts
Sunday. “It's the true story of the boom and bust of the 1990s
Silicon Valley gold rush,” said Courteney Monroe, president of the
National Geographic Channel.

That was before big
money took over. “The internet was completely optimistic,” actor
Dakota Shapiro said. “None of the cynicism existed yet. (It had)
the ideas and the idealism.”

He plays Stephen
Paternot, co-creator of theGlobe.com. And yes, the real guy agrees
about idealism.

“There was a
purity to it, to create the global village where everybody would be
connected,” Paternot said. It was “a sort of Utopia.”

Carnahan points to
one of the boldest actions by the Netscape people. They “pushed
their source code out onto the 'net,” letting anyone use it and
improve it. That led to Mozilla Firefox, which is free, “It was
heroic, what they did.”

But what about the
“insanity” that Hernandez, a Netscape programmer, spoke of? That
included the financing flurry. “You need capital to marry
creativity, so that things can be invented,” Paternot said. The
mini-series “shows the double-edged sword of the capital corrupting
the original vision.”

As the “gold rush”
set in, caution was abandoned. Billions were invested in companies
that had never shown a profit ... and, in at least one case, in a
product that didn't work.

Pixelon was a
streaming service created by Michael Fenne. It gathered $28 million
in financing, promptly spending $16 million of it on a launch party
that ranged from Faith Hill to KISS to a reunion of the Who. It was
big and splashy ... but the technology – and “Fenne” – were
frauds.

“It's truly one of
the favorite characters I've ever played,” said actor Steve Zahn.
“We just made like a fat suit and we put on a wig and I felt like I
was in some play in high school. It was insane.”

Fenne's real name
was David Kim Stanley. The son and grandson of Appalachian preachers,
he had been convicted of more than 50 fraud-related charges. A judge
let him stay out of prison for a while, so he could pay people back;
instead, he drove west.

In that pre-Internet
era, Zahn said, “you could actually be a guy who maybe was running
away from something, you know, be reborn in a way, change your name
and be someone new.”

Stanley dyed his
hair blonde, put on massive amounts of weight and became Fenne. He
told everyone he had a great new way to stream. Except that even his
early demonstrations were fake, using other technology. And in that
massive party – meant to show off Pixelon – the technology didn't
work.

“Boom” puts the
madness of Pixelon alongside the earnest intentions of the others.
The Globe preceded Facebook by a decade and faced the extremes of the
rush – first wildly overvalued, then undervalued. Netscape
prospered at first, then was overwhelmed and absorbed by AOL.

The insanity and
idealism were blotted out. Instead, Paternot said, we had “the
power assimilation by a handful of companies, net neutraliy being
pushed aside so those big companies get even richer.”

It's a wild story,
told with a mixture of scripted scenes and other touches, including
talking heads and more. “I think it's safe to say that National
Geographic has never made a show that features a rap battle, a flash
mob and an interpretive dance,” Monroe said. “It's bonkers and we
couldn't love it more.”

-- “Valley of the
Boom,” six-part mini-series, 9 and 10 p.m. ET Sundays, National
Geographic Channel

-- Two-part opener,
Jan. 13, reruns at 11 and 11:58 p.m. ET that day, then at 9 and 9:58
a.m. ET on Tuesday and on Jan. 20