Black creatives’ struggle in the media world can often feel quite stark. “Swarm,” the new Amazon prime series from the collective minds of Janine Nabers and Donald Glover, is in its first week of release at the time of writing. While doing the usual google research for this review, I typed in “Swarm” TV news and headed along to the news tab. My eyes rolled so far into my head; you could have sworn Paul Bearer was standing beside me holding an urn. The first batch of U.K. news results for the show had their headlines squarely focused on Rory Culkin’s unexpected “Johnson” scene in the show’s pilot. NUDE exclaimed the Daily Mail. While the Independent were quick to note that Paris Jackson (MICHEAL’S DAUGHTER!) and Billie Eilish have also found their way into the show. They seemed less interested in the show itself. Yes, the penis scene is quite amusing. However, focusing on a moment where a white male member is shown is quite telling. The show to which the member is attached is far more provocative than a white dude’s penis out in the wild. The same goes for gossipy mentions of white/white-passing celebrities making appearances. There’s much more going on in “Swarm” than glimpses of stars on the periphery.
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Nabers and Glover have re-orientated “The King of Comedy” (1982) through a black lens. Adding the slow-burning psychological tension of films such as “Repulsion” (1965) in proceedings. “Swarm” tells the obsessive tale of Dre (Dominique Fishback), a socially awkward, young black woman who embarks on a two-year murderous rampage to protect the highly famous pop star she adores. More than adores. She is infatuated. The pop star; Ni’Jah is a fictional avatar for Beyoncé. The references are more than a little blatant. She is hailed as the Queen Bee. In this show, the wildly obsessive fans who mob all areas of social media are nicknamed The Swarm. Like so many social media “stans,” Dre is highly protective of what is said about Ni’jah online. However, her imbalanced mental state drives her to take things to murderous heights. Building slowly to a possible encounter between Dre and her goddess.
Curiously starting each episode with a disclaimer that what the viewer is watching is not a work of fiction, Swarm drops in on Dre at certain points within two years. Paralleling Beyoncé’s Lemonade period of 2016-2018. Throughout the series, parts of Dre’s history are drip fed to viewers as Dre navigates the world around her. While signature moments of Beyoncé punctuate the landscape, only in “Swarm” they are Ni’jah’s. Most of the time, her main goal is to get closer to Ni’jah, with a shrewdness to eliminate anyone willing to dismiss the singer’s excellence. Through Dre’s troubled worldview, “Swarm” takes satirical potshots at pop culture worship, true crime obsession, and white feminist manipulation. The cameos mentioned earlier are smart. This is due to their approximation of the very celebrity culture the show lampoons. However, as the show progresses, its focus snaps onto a pertinent idea—that of troubled black women who slip through the cracks.
As Dre moves across America, often because she’s murdered someone over Ni’Jah, “Swarm” doesn’t make the mistake of many recent serial killers shows. Turning them into somewhat lovable rouges or oddballs who audiences wish they could change. “Swarm” keeps things at a distance. Dre is never easy to love. Killing non-fans over any perceived slight. Yet her awkwardness and compulsive behavior are still somewhat compelling. What’s most interesting is perhaps the idea that the world’s biggest pop star, whose status ensures that everything she does is seen, has a murderous fan who often evades capture because she simply “doesn’t fit the bill.” A later episode touted by some as misguided is the most humorous. The meta-aspect doesn’t always land (I need to be more up on my Beyonce lore), but watching a black detective’s knowledge of stan culture finds her gathering more ground than anybody else, simply because of her true understanding of the landscape hits right on the money. A killer like Dre may not be on their radar.
Quite possibly, the biggest highlight comes in the show’s fourth episode. “Swarm” often leans on some of the out-and-out weirdness of Glover’s previous television endeavor, “Atlanta” (2016-2022). Yet at this midpoint, “Swarm” almost sways into the realm of Jordan Peele’s “Get Out” (2018)—the whole episode channeling the quietly terrifying cult of Keith Raniere’s NXIVM. Complete with an astonishingly controlled and menacing performance from Billie Eilish.
The show is genuinely owned, however, by Dominique Fishback. Her Dre is never made cutesy or cuddly. Any empathy gained from watching her character is hard-earned, and this alone makes her compelling. “Swarm” never truly has Dre as a genuine part of the Swarm, but then again, why would she be? As Dre never truly connects with her internet friends, she receives the same online and offline isolation. While this perhaps makes things a little tricky, it also highlights the insincerity of certain pockets of online culture. A tearful monologue rivals that of Mia Goth’s incredible speech in “Pearl” (2022) regarding the intense sadness it brings about. This and the series’ ending does much to enforce the tragic disconnect between the character.
Shows about trauma aren’t going to go away anytime soon, particularly ones that may deal with the distress of minorities. How they go about mining it will dictate if they sway audiences. The vivid imagery, absurdist humor, and intelligent homages will do well to ensnare an audience to “Swarm.” While Dre’s erratic and compulsive behavior may be hard for some to stomach. Although the show only really scratches the surface of pop culture infatuation, it still manages to be a wild ride into the dark side of pop culture infatuation. The tabloids should do better with this. “Swarm” and its final moments linger in the mind far more than the member of a Culkin. [B]
“Swarm” is available now on Prime Video.