June 18, 2019

Wild Tales of the World Wide Web in ‘Valley of the Boom’

Valley of the Boom Tells Three Tales of the Dotcom Boom and Bust Photo courtesy National Geographic

The 1990s dotcom boom gave rise to mega-successful companies that changed the world. But for every Netflix, Amazon, Facebook or eBay, there are dozens more that crashed and burned when the internet bubble burst. The fascinating true stories of three of those startups play out in the six-part series “Valley of the Boom,” which premieres Jan. 13 on National Geographic. 

Blending scripted drama with documentary interviews with tech figures including Mark Cuban (MicroSolutions, Dallas Mavericks) and Arianna Huffington (a series producer), creator Matthew Carnahan (“House of Lies”) dramatizes the “browser war” between Netscape and Microsoft; reveals the fugitive con artist behind the bogus video streaming platform Pixelon; and tells the tale of two college students who launched the social networking site theGlobe.com in their Cornell University dorm rooms, a decade before Facebook. 

Reminiscent of “The Big Short,” Carnahan’s unconventional storytelling method often breaks the fourth wall and incorporates irreverent humor, a rap battle, a flash mob, a dance sequence, a puppet representing tech mogul Bill Gates and a one-man Greek chorus (Lemorne Morris).

“[The show] never tells you what to feel about the internet or these characters. It becomes this existential conversation, and that’s all you could ever want from entertainment.”

 — Oliver Cooper

Jewish actors Oliver Cooper and Dakota Shapiro portray theGlobe.com founders Todd Krizelman and Stephan Paternot, who appear in interviews interspersed throughout the series. Cooper didn’t meet Krizelman, but Shapiro met and got to know Paternot. Shapiro initially was concerned about how he would match up to the person he was portraying, but realized that “an imitation would not have been very interesting,” he told the Journal. “[Oliver and I] thought that if we embraced the energy and dynamic that they had, it would work and I feel like it did.” 

Neither actor had heard of theGlobe.com before being cast. While growing up in Byron Bay, Australia, Shapiro knew little about Silicon Valley, and relied on research to prepare. But Cooper has a relative with a similar rise-and-fall story. “My uncle Mark Holtzman was the CEO of Webvan, an online grocery delivery service,” he said. “It became huge, then it failed miserably. He’d given my parents and grandparents stock. My grandfather was like, ‘I should have sold that damn stock!’ ”

Cooper, whose recent credits include “The Front Runner,” grew up in the Toledo, Ohio, dreaming of a career in stand-up. “Most of my favorite comedians, my inspirations, were Jewish — Mel Brooks, Adam Sandler,” he said. Of Polish and French-Jewish heritage, he was raised in a Reform family with a “pretty traditional Jewish upbringing. I had a bar mitzvah, went to a Jewish summer camp.”

He moved to Los Angeles at 19 and got a brief internship at “Conan” through a family connection. He aced his first audition for a role in “Project X,” and from there, “it’s been a slow and steady trudge up the mountain that is Hollywood,” he said. “I’m a legend in the Jewish community now, according to my grandmother,” he said.

Shapiro had his sights set on becoming an actor from an early age, and came to Los Angeles at 14 to attend the Idyllwild Arts Academy. He continued his studies at the Royal Welsh College of Music & Drama in Cardiff, Wales. Returning to L.A., he was cast in a small role in “The Affair,” but considers “Valley of the Boom” his big break.

His American mother is of British heritage and not Jewish, and his father’s parents were Russian Jews who immigrated to South Africa. They met in India, where his father was doing spiritual studies and his mother had gone with her then-fiancé. “My father saw my mother dancing and he fell in love with her. I was unplanned, and they went to Australia to raise me,” Shapiro said. “I wasn’t really raised with Jewish traditions but when I visited my dad’s family in South Africa, we would observe and I really enjoyed that. I enjoyed the community and spirit of it. I understand it more now than when I was a kid. I think there’s beauty in the tradition.”

Although he relished working on “a fast-paced, light-spirited piece with some dramatic moments” in “Valley of the Boom,” Shapiro is generally more attracted to “characters that are a bit darker and contradictory in nature, characters at odds with themselves,” he said. “Any character that’s fleshed out and unique is interesting to me and is what pulls me.”

“I want to be a sex symbol for the Jewish community. It’s why I got into this,” Cooper quipped before giving a serious response. “I love playing in the dramedy world. I don’t love straight comedies. I find it harder than doing drama. I love playing believable characters, with a humorous tone but rooted in real drama. I want to do something with a romance in it. You don’t usually see a guy like me in those types of movies.”

Cooper is eager for viewers to see “Valley of the Boom” and thinks they’ll be surprised by the stories and the way they’re told. 

“Valley of the Boom,” he added, “never tells you what to feel about the internet or these characters. It becomes this existential conversation, and that’s all you could ever want from entertainment.”

“Valley of the Boom” premieres at 9 p.m. Jan. 13 on National Geographic.