Matthew Carnahan on set with Bradley Whitford as Netscape CEO James Barksdale
What's the best way to explain the Browser Wars, that high-stakes, late-'90s battle for market share that left Netscape Navigator flickering and faltering in the shadow of Bill Gates's Internet Explorer?
A rap battle. Clearly.
Matthew Carnahan previously put the "dark" in "dark comedy" to skewer the world of management consultants on Showtime's House of Lies.
For National Geographic's limited series Valley of the Boom, the executive producer–writer-director decided that the best way to present the early days of Silicon Valley's tech disruptors was to, well, disrupt the whitewashed, squeaky-clean backstories they present.
This approach included mixing scene re-creations with actual interviews, casting New Girl's Lamorne Morris as narrator and The West Wing's Bradley Whitford as Netscape CEO James Barksdale, evoking the occasional flash mob and, yes, hiring the rap duo Checkmate & Concise to explain the infamous feud.
"Bill Gates is an original gangster; he is hardcore," Carnahan says of the man many now associate with philanthropic causes. "He did go after [Netscape] with the proverbial guns blazing. He went after them with everything he had, and he ultimately killed them. And, in doing so, he committed antitrust violations for which he was found guilty and punished."
Carnahan says he and his team melded these storytelling elements in the hope that they would "enhance one another" — both for comic relief and to juxtapose what sources say happened with what probably really did happen. (For these reasons, he put a trusted friend, coexecutive producer David Newsom, in charge of the unscripted interviews.)
At least one of Carnahan's fellow exec producers knows a thing or two about the tech world: Arianna Huffington, who also appears on screen as herself. She says she wanted to be involved because the early days of the industry "illuminate" today's discussions of exactly how evil technology is.
"When you go to the Valley of the Boom period, there wasn't any glimmer of that," she says. "There was a lot of idealism about the way technology would democratize the world, connect the world and give access to information to everyone — not just the elites. It's fascinating to watch that."
Valley of the Boom also focuses on some principals who are less known than the old white guys with the miles-long Wikipedia pages.
The 2000 documentary Code Rush, about pushing open-source Mozilla code onto the web, introduced the producers to Netscape software developer Tara Hernandez (she's played here by Canadian actress Camille Hollett-French).
They also look at Patty Beron, who created Sfgirl.com, the Gawker of its time, while working as a web developer at Sun Microsystems. She's portrayed by Zoo's Hilary Jardine. It's a lot to pack into six episodes, which will debut January 13. Is there talk of more seasons? Carnahan is interested, and Huffington seems to feel NatGeo has a duty to extend the series.
"I want to see all the issues of the Internet 3.0 explored in this way that Matthew explores in Internet 1.0," she says. "It would elucidate so much of what's happening. We're living through it, but [I want us to be] able to see the consequences and the impact that it's having."
Perhaps she can star in her own rap battle.
Tis article originally appeared in emmy magaine, Issue No. 11, 2018