Arianna Huffington, Bradley Whitford and Steve Zahn on Valley of the Boom. By Dominic Corry

With the internet playing an increasingly bigger role in contemporary life, the innovative new National Geographic show Valley of the Boom is here to illuminate the beginnings of the digital Wild West and show us how the web was won.

Set during the initial internet boom-and-bust era in the 1990s, the six-part hybrid drama/documentary series chronicles the varying fortunes of three nascent businesses that helped define the internet as we know it today: upstart web browser Netscape, would-be video streamer Pixelon, and TheGlobe.com, a pioneering social network that predated not only Facebook and Myspace, but also the long-forgotten Friendster.

Although Valley of the Boom has recognisable actors such as Bradley Whitford - who starred in Get Out and The West Wing - portraying the people behind these businesses, the show also features interviews with the actual people being portrayed, in addition to commentary from other key figures of the era.

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One of those figures is Arianna Huffington, the internet media icon who co-founded the hugely popular online news magazine The Huffington Post, now known as HuffPost.

Huffington is also an executive producer on Valley of the Boom, and she says that the show's unconventional approach to telling the story of the early days of the internet reflects the disruption that was going on at the time.

"It's thoroughly unique," Huffington tells Weekend in Los Angeles. "The way that [Valley of the Boom showrunner] Matthew [Carnahan] blows up the genre was the way dot com was blowing up the period. By doing it in this way, he captures the innovation and the wildness and the chaos of the period. Instead of simply telling you this period was chaotic and innovative, he brings you along for the ride."

And what a ride it is. In addition to intercutting documentary-style interviews with dramatised scenes, the show also has the actors directly addressing the camera. There are even musical and dance numbers.

Huffington says a direct line can be drawn between the ethical and moral issues facing the online world today and the under-regulated nature of the initial boom.

"Now we are actually seeing the unintended consequences of the triumphalism of the era that Valley of the Boom captures," says Huffington. "The way that, politically, the internet can be manipulated, social networks can be manipulated, the way that our attention and our time and our lives are being highjacked by technology."

"The explosion of depression and anxiety among teenage girls, especially, because of the addictive nature of social media - these are all very legitimate questions we're beginning to address. And of course they were nowhere on the table in the 90s when that whole world began to be created."

Two-time Emmy-winner Whitford tells Weekend that Valley of the Boom's unprecedented approach to telling its true story was key to his involvement.

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"It's what attracted me to it because it scared me," says Whitford. "It was very improvisatory and blind and there was no guarantee that it would work."

Whitford plays James Barksdale, the CEO of Netscape, the ground-breaking web browser that took on a market dominated by Microsoft's Internet Explorer in the mid-90s. Barksdale himself also shows up as an interviewee.

"As an actor it freaks me out that I am gonna be working right after you cut away from the real guy," admits Whiford. "It was an interesting acting experience. The entire time I was shooting, I honestly did not know if this would work. I've just seen one episode, I was completely thrilled because I think it's a very fresh way to tell the story that appropriately reflects the wildness and the free-form nature of what was going on then."

Steve Zahn as conman turned dot com founder Michael Fenne. / Photos: National Geographic/Bettina Strauss
Steve Zahn as conman turned dot com founder Michael Fenne. / Photos: National Geographic/Bettina Strauss

Steve Zahn (War for the Planet of the Apes) also stars in the show as the founder of Pixelon, a company that promised - then completely failed to deliver on – the kind of video streaming that would later be owned by YouTube.

Claiming to be "Michael Fenne", he turned out to be a convicted felon named David Kim Stanley, a true charlatan of the internet boom who got acts like Kiss and The Who to perform at the infamously extravagant 1999 Las Vegas launch of Pixelon, a company founded on lies.

"It's really interesting how these guys starting jockeying for position," Zahn tells Weekend. "How do you take ownership of the internet? We couldn't even define it. People didn't even know what it was, and they were already throwing millions of dollars at it. That's how a guy like my character was just able to walk in and just be assertive and interesting, and talk first, and you'd follow him. [People said] 'This guy's loud, I'm gonna give him money.'"

Valley of the Boom premieres Tuesday January 15th at 8.30pm on National Geographic Channel.