National Geographic’s new docu-drama miniseries, Valley of the Boom, premiered this Sunday, and it is a strange beast. The show tells the story of the first days of the internet via three narrative threads: TheGlobe.com, a social networking site; Netscape, the first major web browser; and Michael Fenne, a manic tech evangelist who founded Pixelon.
The show itself is a weird and wild mashup of documentary interview footage (Arianna Huffington, Mark Cuban, many of the parties involved in the actual companies) and surreal scripted comedy-drama. It plays a little like an antic mocumentary in the mode of Christopher Guest, if the interview bits were real. And that doesn’t always work, though watching the showmakers try to graft the disparate parts together—dot-com gurus reminiscing alongside Steve Zahn (as Fenne) launching into a fantasy dance sequence—can be some good fun.
But, at least for Seattle, the show does provide an interesting reminder. Bill Gates, and a crew of Microsoft cronies, play villains in the Netscape part of the story. The show isn’t subtle about it. In the second episode, some of the company’s thugs stroll into a meeting with Netscape, aiming to buy the browser out, like a geek take on Reservoir Dogs—all slowmo, sunglasses, and suits. During the meeting they act like smug, world-dominating assholes. The episode reaches its pinnacle, though, when Bill Gates gives a press conference, essentially declaring war against Netscape. Gates is played by a puppet, the show explains, because there was no documentary footage of that conference.
It’s a winking little flourish, but gets at a strange phenomenon. Before Jeff Bezos took the Richest Man in the World crown, Gates was a sort of cultural villain. But perhaps because Bezos plays that role so much better (his dome has a distinctly Lex Luthor-ian gleam), and because the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation is reasonably admirable—reasonably since Gates remains still immorally rich—public opinion of the man has rebounded. Back in 1989, Gates ran a “velvet sweatshop,” as a Seattle Times article put it. And in 2001 he ended up in court in an antitrust suit because of its dealings with Netscape.
So whatever its narratively eccentric faults, Valley of the Boom is a good reminder of what we ought not forget: Bill Gates was ruthless. He was also a puppet.