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Donald Glover’s New Show, ‘Swarm,’ Is Designed to Make Headlines

The first series from Glover following the conclusion of ‘Atlanta,’ ‘Swarm’ obviously aims to provoke—or, in a more on-theme metaphor, pack some sting

Amazon/Ringer illustration

There’s no need to bother with the pretense that Ni’Jah, the pop star at the center of the new Amazon series Swarm, is “a Beyoncé-like figure” or some other euphemism. Before each episode, a riff on a standard disclaimer declares, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” (The emphases are mine, though they’re strongly implied.) Ni’Jah—a mononymous musician whose fans call her “queen” and “goddess,” who surprise drops visual albums that take over the internet, and whose husband and sister are public figures in their own right—doesn’t resemble Beyoncé. She is Beyoncé, and Swarm has no interest in pretending otherwise.

Swarm is the first series from Donald Glover since Atlanta, which concluded on FX late last year. (Glover, who serves as Swarm’s executive producer, pilot director, and cocreator, now works under an overall deal with Amazon; future projects include a reimagining of Mr. and Mrs. Smith costarring Maya Erskine.) The show is, in some ways, its predecessor’s inverse. Atlanta, too, was about music and mega-fame, but its point of view belonged to the performer. Swarm switches to that of an obsessed ultra-fan: Dre (Dominique Fishback), a Houstonite who’s been part of the Beyhive—sorry, Ni’Jah’s “Swarm”—since she was a teenager.

At first, Dre is just uncomfortably intense. She spies on Marissa (Chlöe Bailey), her best friend and former foster sister, having sex in their shared apartment. She alienates coworkers at her minimum-wage mall job, unable to engage in small talk that isn’t about Ni’Jah. Per the online cliché, especially ubiquitous after tickets for the Renaissance World Tour went on sale last month, Dre spends thousands of dollars she needs for rent on a pair of concert passes for herself and Marissa. But when tragedy strikes, the shock sends Dre over the edge and onto the road, and she takes her anger and grief out on any Ni’Jah haters who cross her path.

Glover created Swarm with Atlanta writer Janine Nabers, and he has carried over the close-knit group of collaborators he formed over his former show’s four seasons; his brother, Stephen, serves as an executive producer, as do familiar faces like Ibra Ake, Fam Udeorji, and Jamal Olori. (New additions to the roster include a former First Family member who goes by the pen name Malia Ann.) As such, Swarm retains the stylistic trademarks of Atlanta’s uneven, often controversial latter half: plot points ripped from the headlines, like the infamous elevator clip; a structure that’s anthology-esque, changing shape episode by episode; cameos from real-life music royalty, including Bailey and megastar Billie Eilish in her screen-acting debut. Along with her sister, Halle, Bailey is a protégé of Queen Bey herself, increasing Swarm’s connection to its all-but-explicit subject.

Swarm also inhabits the space between horror and comedy where Atlanta often thrived. One episode is a Zola-like romp set at a strip club; another is an encounter with a cult clearly modeled after NXIVM. But to have as tight a handle on its tone as high points like “Teddy Perkins,” Swarm would need much more clarity on what it wants to say about fandom in general and the specific fan at its center. Violent, vicious, and extremely online, Swarm obviously aims to provoke—or, in a more on-theme metaphor, pack some sting. Once the buzz dies down, though, there’s not much substance to sustain the hype.

In this and other roles, Fishback is a tremendously exciting actor. After her breakout out in projects like David Simon’s Show Me a Hero and Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah, which won her costar Daniel Kaluuya an Oscar, Swarm is her first stint as a series lead. The sheer intensity she brings to Dre is riveting; whether doing an awkward pole dance or devouring fruit in the middle of a party, Dre’s a true oddball who couldn’t blend in if she tried. Swarm asks a lot of Fishback, who has to swing from unrequited longing to cold calculation to homicidal rage and back. She gamely hits every note.

What Fishback can’t do is make Dre a coherent character with a legible inner life. Besides making the show more watchable, it isn’t apparent what Swarm wants Fishback to do with her character or the obsession she takes to its extreme. Some inconsistency is a question of internal logic; Dre seems to switch from uncontrollably impulsive to ice-cold operator as the story demands. Other issues cut to the show’s core. Is Dre a scary-movie monster, a kind of stan Twitter creepypasta who needs no real depth? Or does she deserve our empathy as much as our fear? Swarm has fun when it indulges its own nihilism, showing equal contempt for Dre, her victims, and eventually, her pursuers. But the series also gives Dre a traumatic backstory and, late in the season, an impassioned defense—a speech that can’t help but read like a half-hearted attempt to have it both ways. The sudden loss that supposedly motivates Dre is so sudden that it can barely register with viewers just getting their bearings, let alone serve as the show’s emotional foundation.

The premise of Swarm is a clever riff on an established idea. Pop stars like Beyoncé, Taylor Swift, and Nicki Minaj all have followings so devoted and organized they become their own identities. (Nicki’s music is something you like; a Barb is someone you are.) Should anyone say an unkind word about their idol, such masses are liable to mobilize on social media—doxxing, death threats, the whole nine yards. One of these often anonymous accounts could conceivably take its self-assigned mission into meatspace; it’s the kind of half-joking hypothetical, like the Crank Dat Killer, that propelled Atlanta on its many tangents.

When sustained over seven episodes, though, Swarm is quickly stretched thin. Attempts to switch gears from glib satire to finger-wagging sanctimony are unconvincing. Swarm vaguely argues that stan rhetoric is irresponsible, influencing lonely, lost souls to take matters into their own hands. But given how many actual examples we have of virtual movements turned violent that aren’t related to pop stars, the would-be warning lacks urgency. And when it comes to unpacking Dre’s particular psychosis, Swarm can turn condescending. As the season goes on, the show starts to imply that her fixation on Ni’Jah—and indifference to sex, especially with men—is the result of repressed queer desire, an explanation that plays into some ugly tropes.

Swarm will likely count itself a success if it generates the headlines and posts it so actively pursues. (For a show that sneers at social media, Swarm certainly speaks its language.) As compelling as its main performance may be, though, Swarm is still a missed opportunity for insight into the allure of modern idol worship—lots of noise, but not much melody. Swarm kicks the hornet’s nest, only to find there’s not much inside.