Swarm, Prime Video’s new limited series from Donald Glover (in his first post-Atlanta project) and Janine Nabers (another Atlanta alum, as well as a writer on Watchmen), stars Dominique Fishback as Dre, a young woman from Houston whose entire life revolves around her fandom of pop icon Ni’Jah. In the first episode, Khalid (Damson Idris), the boyfriend of her sister Marissa (Chlöe Bailey), wonders why Dre is obsessed with someone who, deep down, is just a regular person like everybody else.
“She is not like everybody else,” an indignant Dre replies. “She knows what we’re thinking and she gives it a name. She’s a goddess.”
This is an unhealthy attitude to have about anyone, whether they’re someone in your life or a celebrity you’ve never met. (Though Dre of course assumes she is not only destined to meet Ni’Jah, but that they will instantly become the best of friends when this happens.) Dre’s unwavering devotion to her idol sooner or later makes everyone around her uncomfortable, Marissa included. Swarm succeeds at making that aspect a fully-immersive experience, as spending seven half-hour-ish episodes in and around Dre’s head is profoundly discomfiting.
The question is whether there is a point to the show beyond suggesting that fandom eventually grows toxic for both ends of that one-sided relationship. And, beyond that, whether Nabers and Glover have enough to say on that theme to justify the whole show. There are fascinating, even thrilling, aspects of Swarm, first and foremost a fantastic lead performance by Dominique Fishback (The Deuce). But the show never quite hangs together, creating a whole that’s substantially less than the individual parts.
Amazon has embargoed significant parts of the show, starting with the premise itself. What I can tell you is that Fishback is the only actor who continues from one episode to the next, as Dre’s fixation on the transparently Beyoncé-inspired(*) Ni’Jah sets her off on an increasingly violent cross-country odyssey. I cannot name all the guest stars — notably a celebrity from a non-acting field who does outstanding work in the fourth episode — but I can say that the roster includes Rickey Thompson, Paris Jackson, Rory Culkin, Kiersey Clemons, and Byron Bowers.
(*) The first episode not only takes place in April of 2016, but involves Ni’Jah’s surprise release of an extremely Lemonade-esque album and film called Festival. And Ni’Jah’s fans call themselves The Swarm.
Mostly, though, what I can tell you is that Glover and Nabers have brought a variation of the Atlanta formula — or, rather, the lack thereof — to this new project. Despite the continued presence of Dre, each episode feels wildly different from the next. The premiere is straight psychological horror, the second episode is often farcical, a later installment is a thriller, another is presented as an episode of another series altogether, etc. That amorphous structure worked so marvelously on Atlanta because that show was ongoing and largely plotless, and thematically about a pair of cousins trying to figure out what to do with their lives. Here, though, we have a self-contained series whose protagonist’s goals and motivations are clear from the end of the very first chapter. So bouncing from one tone and genre to the next creates a whiplash effect, even though some of the episodes — that fourth one in particular — are quite good.
Having Fishback around covers some of these problems. Dre is so single-minded and fundamentally off-putting that it would be easy to play her as a caricature. Fishback doesn’t exactly turn her into a more complex character than is on the page, but she’s such a strong and charismatic screen presence that the two-dimensionality doesn’t matter as much. And her performance is just as fluid as the show around her, allowing her to adapt to the shifting tones of each episode, and to make it convincing as Dre gradually learns to adapt to her rapidly-changing circumstances. She’s terrific — funny when given the opportunity to be, chilling in the more intense moments, and occasionally both at once.
There’s just not a lot lurking beneath the power of that performance, and of the show’s impressionistic style. (Glover directs the premiere, and is followed by others like Honk For Jesus. Save Your Soul. director Adamma Ebo.) Just as Dre is ultimately not interested in anything or anyone but her sister and Ni’Jah, Swarm never really lets go of its chief point regarding why it’s bad to stan for celebs. We gradually learn about other traumatic aspects of Dre’s life that turned her into this creepy person, but the end result is all that really seems to matter to the creative team.
Each episode of Swarm opens with a jokey disclaimer that “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” But the episode presented as coming from another show — akin to when Atlanta did the mockumentary about A Goofy Movie, or the one where Paper Boi was on a talk show the whole time — suggests that there can be multiple layers of reality even within a fiction. Is the “true” version of Dre’s story more compelling than what the rest of Swarm gives us? Does all the meta commentary undermine or underline the points that Nabers and Glover are trying to make? Like almost everything about the series, it’s an interesting notion to ponder for a minute, less so the longer you have to think about it.
All seven episodes of Swarm will begin streaming on Amazon Prime Video on March 17. I’ve seen the whole thing.