Between Show Me a Hero, The Deuce, Judas and the Black Messiah and The Last Days of Ptolemy Grey, Dominique Fishback could have an Oscar nomination and a small pile of Emmy nods on her resumé. She does not.
But Fishback’s stretch as one of entertainment’s most reliable and overlooked actresses should reach a turning point with Amazon’s Swarm, an indescribable new seven-parter from Janine Nabers and, in his first show since Atlanta, Donald Glover. Holding down nearly every second of the horror-comedy/road-trip hybrid, Fishback is scintillating, giving a performance that had me rewatching laugh-out-loud or heartbreaking beats — and probably demands a full series rewatch to see how each piece of new or expectation-flipping information informs each acting decision.
The Bottom Line
An incendiary lead turn boosts a tricky series.
Airdate: All episodes premiere Friday, March 17 (Amazon)
Cast: Dominique Fishback
Creators: Janine Nabers and Donald Glover
It’s a performance of deliriously bizarre choices anchoring a show of deliriously bizarre choices, and I wish I could be as confidently effusive about Swarm as I am about its star. Swarm is audacious and provocative, and it commits fully to whatever it’s going for. But it goes after its satirical targets with a sledgehammer when just occasionally a precision tool might have been preferable. It’s so entrenched in this cultural moment that I would be equally unsurprised if, looking back from a bit more distance, Swarm emerged as one of my favorite shows of the year or, instead, came to feel almost laughably broad.
There are so many details in Swarm that Amazon wants to keep mysterious that some tip-toeing is required. Fishback plays Dre, an impossibly awkward young woman living with her sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), in Houston. Marissa has a promising career as a makeup artist and a hunky boyfriend (Damson Idris’ Khalid). Dre has … well, Dre has a deep affection for pop sensation Ni’Jah, even operating a popular Twitter feed catering to The Swarm, Ni’Jah’s fearsome fanbase. OK, fine. It’s not just affection. It’s obsession, and after Dre maxes out a credit card for Ni’Jah tickets, things begin to go very wrong. A multi-year — the series starts in 2016 — and multi-state odyssey begins.
With Glover behind the camera for the pilot, followed by Adamma Ebo (Honk for Jesus. Save Your Soul.) and Atlanta veterans Stephen Glover and Ibra Ake, Swarm feels most like one of the unsettling standalone episodes that peppered the second half of Atlanta‘s run, with layered allegory and varied genre threads. It’s a recipe for a Twilight Zone episode — or, in this case, seven half-hour Twilight Zone episodes — unified by Fishback, notes of almost hallucinatory luridness and a sound design punctuated in moments of high intensity by the underlying titular buzzing.
Without getting into spoilers, there are episodes of Swarm that are disturbing and shockingly violent and others that are ridiculously funny (and maybe still shockingly violent). It’s peppered with guest stars ranging from the underused (Rory Culkin’s in the premiere, but I’m barely sure why) to the amusingly deployed (Paris Jackson’s appearance is even better if you remember the “Teddy Perkins” Atlanta episode) to one cameo in the fourth episode that’s so perfect that anybody who ruins it beforehand should be cursed by an unfortunate run-in with Dre.
The most remarkable thing about the show’s central performance is that Dre seems to be a slightly different person in each episode, but Fishback makes each transition feel organic. She’s able to be a dull-eyed zombie — not literally — one moment and an adroit physical comedian the next, sympathetic and relatable in one interaction and chillingly sociopathic in the next. The characterization only gets richer and more complex in its second half as Swarm leans into efforts to pathologize Dre, spelling out the factors that make her tick with a self-aware obviousness suggesting a satire of a popular corner of the Ryan Murphy oeuvre.
That obviousness can be grating. There’s great mirth in the “Tee-hee, Ni’Jah is a lot like Beyoncé!” recognition of the first episode, but the clearer the comparison becomes, the less rewarding it is. (After you’ve seen the show, you’ll know it’s a good deal more complicated than this, but mum’s the word!)
Nor do I know how many points for perceptiveness I give Swarm for its evisceration of toxic fandom and the performativity of online trolling. This is another instance where the show’s evasiveness, which may alienate some viewers, becomes an asset: If you don’t buy into the critiques of social media or celebrity culture, just wait around and you’ll get to the tweaking of true crime or cult documentaries. Whatever we, as a society, have been obsessed by in the past five years, Swarm is obsessed by. I can’t quite tell if it’s always picking apart the superficiality of these obsessions or, from time to time, falling victim to a similar superficiality of its own.
You will not know what Swarm is after the pilot. Don’t be concerned. It shape-shifts from a love story to a domestic melodrama to a raucous adventure with a gang of strippers, and then there’s one episode that completely turns the show’s tone, style and structure on its head. Enjoy the warped Swarm shell game, treasure Fishback’s performance and join me in waiting to see how the breadth-over-depth approach ages.