The Star Of ‘Swarm’ Stings, Even When The Show Doesn’t
2:39 PM EDT on March 21, 2023
Online fandom has been long overdue its own version of American Psycho or Single White Female. The way social media has accelerated antisocial behavior and parasocial relationships with celebrities to terrifying extremes is one of the principle features of life in the early 21st century, and yet film and television has been reluctant to give this phenomenon the scathing satire it deserves. Maybe nobody wants to raise a stink on Twtitter.
So while Swarm, a new limited series on Amazon Prime from Janine Nabers and the hivemind behind Atlanta, is in some ways nearly a decade late, its arrival is still welcome and more than necessary. The show stars Dominique Fishback (Judas & The Black Messiah, The Deuce) as Dre, a young girl who's just a bit off and completely antisocial, save for her two obsessive relationships: one with her foster sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey), and the other a parasocial one with a Beyoncé-like pop star named Ni'Jah.
Dre and Marissa are complete Ni'Jah "stans," but as Marissa discovers other interests like "making friends" and "having sex," Dre only drills further into her obsession: running a Ni'Jah fan Twitter page and using rent money/maxing out credit cards for concert tickets. After getting into a fight with her boyfriend and being unable to reach Dre, who is out partying to Ni'Jah's latest release, Marissa takes her own life, shattering whatever grip on reality Dre has left. Without spoiling too much, she heads out on a cross-country murder rampage, taking out anyone who has ever even tweeted sideways at Ni'Jah or her foster sister. The journey takes her all over the U.S., where she meets all sorts of colorful characters and wreaks all sorts of havoc, inflicting the same damage that's been done to her while seeking out any sort of pure love from the world.
That's not to say that this is one of those shows "about trauma." Swarm does not try to make a case for Dre as misunderstood or secretly a good person "underneath it all." She's single-minded in her mission, and later on in the series quite open about the way murder makes her feel good. And yet, you empathize with Dre anyway, namely due to the way Fishback portrays her. There are always a million different, possibly conflicting feelings happening on her face and in the eyes. She internalizes Dre's pain and makes it into external features, but rarely in a showy manner. It's a twitch here, a sudden jerk there—you believe murder is the only release she has beyond screaming like a girl to Ni'Jah's music. It's an unglamorous performance and at times even a brave one, even as she prances about in her underwear or works as a stripper at one point. It's the kind of role actors work their whole lives to get, Fishback makes the most of her moment.
Fishback's central performance also carries the show as it becomes flimsier. A playwright by trade, this is Nabers's first turn as creator and show-runner. She previously worked on shows like Watchmen and Atlanta. Nabers developed Swarm alongside Donald Glover, the artistic polyglot musician-actor-filmmaker whose irreverent but still pretentious aesthetic permeates throughout the show, both for better and worse. Glover directed the first episode, setting the visual style for the rest of the series, which has the patina of a '70s horror film, complete with uncomfortable close-ups and grainy film stock, while also updating it with a Tumblr-like fixation on "bisexual lighting." Beyond that template, you can't exactly pinpoint where Glover's contributions to the show come in, but it's hard to not see the series' crippling addiction to stunt casting as his idea.
There's Bailey of course, and also Billie Eilish, Rory Caulkin, Paris Jackson, and multiple episodes on which Malia Obama is credited as a writer. These cameos, combined with Glover's involvement—he's a pop star in his own right—work to make the show feel cheaper than maybe it was meant to be. Is this actually an earnest exploration of toxic fan co-dependency and celebrity culture, or just some famous people punching back at their Twitter trolls? And much like with episodes of Atlanta, plot contrivances are created throughout but done in funny, "weird" ways, as if to make up for the fact that they're plot contrivances. How did Dre even become a stripper in Houston? She did it just so she could stalk a Ni'Jah troll? Why would a member of a women's empowerment cult conveniently be at the same gas station as Dre, and then help scare a police officer away from following her without so much as a word? I don't know, but isn't it funny!
Swarm is probably a really great movie stretched out to a mostly solid, sometimes shaky seven-episode series. But it's Fishback that enthralls you and keeps you sucked in throughout, even when the story stops doing the job. The violence becomes secondary to what is going on in the character's head, and how she interacts with the people she meets. Save for a bland episode near the end that's meant to provide backstory, the show is better the more it burrows into Dre's mind and provides glimpses of how her past shaped her psyche, and how much abuse she's internalized. Fishback is the real show, and Swarm is all the more significant for having her.
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