By Brian Richards | TV | March 25, 2023 |
By Brian Richards | TV | March 25, 2023 |
SO WHAT SHOULD I KNOW ABOUT THIS SERIES BEFORE READING YOUR REVIEW?: Sex scenes between actors are not new, are not real (except when it comes to porn, and even then, they’re more fantasy than reality), are not deserving of your slut-shaming bullsh-t, and have been happening in movies for decades. Print this out, and place it on the mirrors in your home until it finally sinks in.
UH…HUH! WHY EXACTLY ARE YOU SAYING THIS?: Don’t worry, I’ll get to that later in this review. Oh, and there will be spoilers, so you’ve been warned.
WHAT IS THIS SERIES ACTUALLY ABOUT?: Dre (Dominique Fishback) is a socially awkward young woman who is obsessed with an extremely popular R&B singer named Ni’Jah, and who lives in Houston with her foster sister, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), an aspiring makeup artist. The two of them work together at a clothing kiosk at a shopping mall, and when Marissa asks Dre to cover her shift, the kiosk is robbed and graffitied by teenagers while Dre is elsewhere hanging out with Khalid (Damson Idris), Marissa’s boyfriend.
Dre and Marissa later get into a heated argument in which Marissa announces that she’ll be moving in with Khalid (despite the fact that they’ve only been together three months, and Khalid has not been shy in his attempts to flirt with Dre), and she’ll be interviewing for another job elsewhere, before leaving their home to go out with Khalid. Later that evening, Dre learns that Ni’Jah has surprise-dropped a new album, and after spending the rest of the night dancing at a nightclub and having a one-night stand, she discovers the following morning that Marissa has died by suicide after learning the ugly truth about Khalid. Her death sends Dre into an emotional and psychological spiral, sending her down a path in which she will kill anyone and everyone who disrespects the person who matters to her most: Ni’Jah.
OH. WOW! SO THIS IS KINDA LIKE DEXTER?: Not entirely. Dre is shown killing multiple people throughout the series, but unlike Dexter Morgan, Dre isn’t nearly as careful and meticulous when carrying out her murders (and nearly gets killed by one of her potential victims as a result), and there is no narration that lets us into what Dre is thinking or feeling about everything she’s doing.
LET’S START WITH THE GOOD. WHAT ARE THE THINGS ABOUT SWARM THAT WORKED?: Dominique Fishback’s performance as Dre is a tour de force from the first episode to the last. Dre’s attempts at being a sex worker at a strip joint, despite the fact that she can’t really dance, and her choice of song when performing is a song by Ni’Jah about her miscarriage. All of Dre’s co-workers from the strip joint coming to her rescue when Dre’s attempt at killing Reggie fails miserably, only for Dre to abandon them all at the scene of the crime by running outside, hopping in her car, and driving away. Dre killing Hailey (her colleague at the strip joint, who dances under the name “Halsey,” since she’s also half-Black just like the singer), and then immediately asking her phone, “Siri, who’s Halsey?” Dre crossing paths with Ni’Jah for the very first time (right after being hit on by a man who pretends that he’s Jesse Williams, and that he invented the term “Black Girl Magic”), which is so overwhelming for her that she begins eating from a nearby cart of Ni’Jah’s catered bowls of fruit, only to realize that what she actually did was go up to Ni’Jah and bite her face. Dre being taken in by a white female empowerment group (which not only gives off Midsommar vibes, but also brings to mind both NXIVM, and this infamous news story about the death of Tamla Horsford). Dre’s encounter with Eva, the group’s leader, is very reminiscent of Get Out, especially the therapy scene between Daniel Kaluuya and Catherine Keener.
Dre butting heads with a cell phone store employee (played by Internet personality Rickey Thompson) upon realizing that Marissa’s phone has been deactivated. The caseworker ranting about how she refuses to reveal more of Dre’s personal history to Detective Greene or to the documentarian, and have it all treated as gossip. Dre (who is now known as Tony, and presenting as masculine in hairstyle, clothing, and mannerisms) meeting Rashida, and the two of them falling for each other. Rashida going off on Tony, and insulting him after they buy tickets to a Ni’Jah concert for the two of them to attend, resulting in Tony tearfully strangling her to death and then lying with her corpse on the couch before burning her corpse…and realizing that they forgot to remove the tickets from Rashida’s pocket before burning her.
(FYI: When referring to Dre’s actions under the chosen name and identity of “Tony,” they/them pronouns will be used.)
SO WHAT ARE THE THINGS ABOUT SWARM THAT DIDN’T WORK?: If you’re a fan of Beyoncé, or if you’re someone who is very knowledgeable about all things pop culture, Swarm will give you a few reasons to chuckle and do the “DiCaprio pointing at the screen in recognition from Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” meme, but outside of that, it’s not nearly as scary or funny or as clever as it’s hoping to be. Seeing how far Dre is willing to go to punish anyone who speaks negatively about Ni’Jah is darkly compelling, in that it makes the audience feel like rubberneckers who slow down to see all the gory and messy details of a nearby car accident, but there isn’t much else that’s really interesting. Swarm attempts to explore the same territory as Atlanta, which was made by many of the same writers and producers from that series, but only ends up getting lost in the story it’s trying to tell. (I think back to the episode in which Dre seduces a Ni’Jah concert employee who is also recovering from an eating disorder, causes him to relapse, and then locks him in a freezer with a giant cake intended for Ni’Jah and her team. And my response to that story can be summed up as “shrug emoji.” Which is probably not what the writers intended, but I’m still unsure as to what point they were trying to make, or what reaction they were hoping to elicit.)
THIS SHOW SOUNDS LIKE IT’S ABOUT BEYONCÉ AND HER FANS WHO CALL THEMSELVES THE BEYHIVE!: Any similarities you happen to notice between Beyonce and the Beyhive in real life, and Ni’Jah and the Swarm in this series, are not at all intentional and are purely coincidental.
SURE, JAN! WILL I LIKE THIS SHOW EVEN IF I’M NOT A BEYONCÉ FAN, OR DON’T KNOW MUCH ABOUT HER?: You don’t need to know a lot about Beyoncé to watch or enjoy Swarm, so that’s definitely not a requirement. If you’re a Beyoncé fan, though, there are plenty of references and Easter eggs regarding her career and her personal life that you’ll notice, including the incident in which Sanaa Lathan was with Beyonce and allegedly bit her on the cheek. Or at least according to Tiffany Haddish.
WAIT?! SANAA LATHAN BIT BEYONCÉ?! THAT’S A THING THAT ACTUALLY HAPPENED?!: Oh, you sweet summer child. To answer your question, I’m going to emphatically use this GIF so that Dustin doesn’t get sued for all of his Lassie memorabilia.
ANY CAMEOS FROM THE CAST OF COMMUNITY?: None whatsoever.
DOES BEYONCÉ APPEAR IN THIS?: No, she doesn’t.
ANYONE FROM DESTINY’S CHILD?: No.
ARE THERE ANY FAMILIAR FACES IN THIS SHOW?: Damson Idris from the FX series Snowfall appears in the pilot as Khalid. Rory Culkin is also in the pilot, as some random clubgoer who Dre loses her virginity to when she goes out dancing, and even gives the audience a close-up of what his dick looks like when offering Dre a bowl of strawberries. (I’m still catching up on Succession before the final season starts, so it’s still a mystery as to whether anything like this happens between Roman and Gerri.)
Paris Jackson (yes, that Paris Jackson) plays Hailey, Dre’s colleague at a strip joint who stays with Dre at her place after having one argument too happy with her abusive boyfriend. Billie Eilish appears as Eva, the leader of a female empowerment group who takes Dre under her wing in the hopes that she will stay and join them. Leon plays Dre’s foster father, who makes it very clear that he is not happy to see Dre when she shows up in his house. Kiersey Clemons plays Rashida, a grad student who meets Dre and finds herself falling for her, Cree Summer and Norm Lewis play Rashida’s parents, and Sean Giambrone (who is best known for playing Adam F. Goldberg on The Goldbergs) shows up as an awkward Nice Guy who meets Dre at a party and pays her to watch him do the Five-Knuckle Shuffle in front of her while she’s eating a bag of pretzel chips.
HAH! NICE TRY, BRIAN! I KNOW YOU’RE MAKING ALL THAT UP, AND THAT HE’S NOT EVEN IN THIS SHOW!: Okay, Dustin.
…………………………………………..WAIT, ARE YOU BEING SERIOUS THIS TIME? HE’S ACTUALLY IN THIS SHOW DOING THAT?!: Of course I’m not being serious, Dustin! Sean Giambrone is not in any episodes of Swarm! But the part about Dre allowing some nerdy white dude to pay her so he can masturbate in front of her (while also telling Dre to bite down harder on her pretzel chips) is absolutely 100% true. (Publisher’s Note: Jerk.)
I READ THAT THERE’S A MOCKUMENTARY EPISODE IN THIS SHOW LIKE THERE WAS FOR ATLANTA. IS THAT TRUE?: Yes, it is. Whereas Atlanta had “The Goof Who Sat By the Door,” which delved into the history of A Goofy Movie and how it took a severe toll on the life and mental health of a Black animator, Swarm has “Falling Through the Cracks,” which follows a Black female homicide detective investigating a murder that ends up connected to one of the murders committed by Dre, and ends up putting the pieces together to realize who Dre is and what she’s doing. It’s good, but not on the same level of quality as that Atlanta episode, and it also hints at what happens with Dre in the following episode, while also revealing what happened with Dre’s parents after their unpleasant encounter that involved lots of gunfire.
ON A SCALE OF 1 TO “WHAT THE HELL DID I JUST WATCH?,” HOW WEIRD AND TERRIFYING IS THIS SERIES?: When it comes to being weird, I’d give it a 4. When it comes to being terrifying, I’d give the series as a whole a 3, since again, it’s really not that scary or disturbing. (The episode in which Dre is with the all-female cult? I give that one an 8.)
I NOTICED THAT BLACK TWITTER HAS A LOT TO SAY ABOUT SWARM. DO THEY LIKE IT? DO THEY HATE IT?: (sighs) Excuse me one moment.
Let’s start with how some people on Twitter complained about the sex scene between Marissa and Khalid. About how it did not look fake at all, that it was too damn much, and that Chloe Bailey shouldn’t be doing such things onscreen because she has young fans who look up to her. (Very few people felt the need to wag their fingers disapprovingly at Damson Idris, who was also acting in that very same scene with Chloe.) So if you’re someone who hates the “We don’t need sex scenes in our movies and television shows” discourse that pops up on Twitter and goes viral at least twice a year, this did not help in the slightest.
Donald Glover, who co-created Swarm with Janine Nabers, and directed the pilot that he co-wrote with her, was accused once again of misogynoir, and that the entire series is proof that he has little to no respect for Black women, or for giving them any treatment in his work that makes them as three-dimensional as his Black male characters. This resulted in people calling bullsh-t on these accusations, and stating that these naysayers were blatantly ignoring that there were several Black women on the show’s writing staff, and to act as if Donald Glover was solely responsible for the show’s content was an insult to them.
But then this Vulture interview with Dominique Fishback was published, and this portion right here grabbed the most attention and convinced those naysayers that they were right to say what they said about Glover, and his influence in crafting Swarm:
Donald Glover on why he didn’t give Dominique Fishback much direction on the character Dre’s motivations: "Think of it more like an animal and less like a person" https://t.co/1IGPKsNVru pic.twitter.com/OcAR5UCWiI— Vulture (@vulture) March 21, 2023
As much as this scene between Fishback and Billie Eilish was praised, especially because Eilish proved to be a stronger actress than expected, people on Twitter eventually began to wonder why Eilish was getting the majority of attention and praise instead of Fishback.
this whole scene with billie eilish was insanely unsettling yet captivating, also that's an emmy right there, dominique fishback just bagged an emmy #swarm pic.twitter.com/S11yGswpBM— rieeese (╯°□°)╯ (@rieeese) March 19, 2023
ARE WE LED TO BELIEVE THAT ANY OF THIS IS A DREAM, OR THAT IT’S ALL HAPPENING IN DRE’S IMAGINATION?: This brings us to the ending, in which Dre/Tony makes their way into the Ni’Jah concert (despite burning their ticket along with Rashida’s corpse) by killing a scalper and stealing his ticket. Dre/Tony heads to the front row, sees Ni’Jah, and is so enamored with her that they actually go up on stage, Lil Mama-style, and approaches Ni’Jah, only to be ambushed by security and taken into custody to be removed from the stage. Suddenly, we hear Ni’Jah tell security to stop what they’re doing, and as she walks up to Dre/Tony, we see Ni’Jah from Dre/Tony’s perspective, with Marissa’s face imposed over Ni’Jah’s, and telling her to sing for the crowd that’s in front of them. Dre/Tony simply tells the audience “I love you,” before Ni’Jah spurs the crowd to cheer and applaud in response. We then see Ni’Jah and Dre/Tony huddled together as they rush to Ni’Jah’s limo, and once they’re seated inside, Ni’Jah embraces Dre/Tony, who rests their head on her shoulder and sheds tears while thanking Ni’Jah.
Did any of this happen, or was this another example of Dre being an unreliable narrator, much like how we saw Dre happily eating Ni’Jah’s fruit, when in reality, she had bitten her face? As for seeing Marissa’s face on Ni’Jah: Was Dre actually in love with Marissa this whole time, hence why she disapproved of Khalid, and other men she’s been involved with? Or was Dre still wracked with guilt for not being there for Marissa when she needed her most, causing her to finally lose her sanity? If you’re expecting any concrete answers from me, or from Nabers or Glover, you’re sh-t out of luck. According to Nabers, it was fully intended for the ending to be ambiguous and for the audience to decide for themselves what they were really seeing onscreen. From this interview with the Los Angeles Times:
LAT: Let’s talk about that ending. Why did you decide to leave things on that note?
Nabers: When Donald pitched the idea to me, the ending was very much something that he saw visually in his head — her getting in the car with this woman and driving off — and we knew that we were going to have Chloe [Bailey, who has Ni’Jah]’s face on her. I think that ending is very bittersweet, but also very troubling because we know what that moment is in history: In 2018, [when] a person runs onstage and gets tackled. We don’t know where that person is today … You look at all of the things she’s done to get to where she is, and it’s a devastating moment because you don’t know the reality of it. You don’t know where she really is in time and space. We wanted to give that very ambiguous ending where people can put their own thought process onto it if they want to.
IS IT TRUE THAT MALIA OBAMA WAS ONE OF THE WRITERS FOR SWARM?: Yes, that’s true. She writes under the name “Malia Ann,” and co-wrote the episode “Girl, Bye,” in which Dre breaks into her parents’ house in order to convince them to turn Marissa’s cell phone back on. From Entertainment Tonight:
Nabers admitted Malia’s episode is “probably one of the wildest” of the show, and it’s all partly thanks to the former first daughter’s creativity. “Some of her pitches were wild as hell, and they were just so good and so funny,” Nabers said of Malia. “She’s an incredible writer. She brought a lot to the table. She’s really, really dedicated to her craft.”
IS THIS SHOW BASED ON A TRUE STORY? EVERY EPISODE BEGINS BY TELLING US THAT THIS IS NOT A WORK OF FICTION: According to Nabers: “We did research for months to basically find events (between 2016 and 2018) that we could put our main character in … So it’s really not a work of fiction. We’ve taken real internet rumors, real murders, and combined them in the narrative of our main character, Dre. Not much of it is fabricated.”
TO SUM IT ALL UP: The absolute best thing about Swarm is undoubtedly Dominique Fishback, who is amazing to watch in every episode. To see her become chameleonic as she travels from one place to another, change how she approaches the world around her, and embrace what she’s capable of doing to anyone who gives the wrong answer to “Who’s your favorite artist?” never fails to be entertaining. (One of her very best scenes is when Dre runs into Erica, and lies to her in explicit detail, even to the point of shedding tears, as to where she’s been and what she’s been doing since disappearing after Marissa’s death.) Unfortunately, the writing and direction often fails at being truly effective in peeling back the layers of who Dre is, why she’s shedding blood all across the U.S. of A, and making viewers want to care about this. But as evidenced by her Vulture interview, much of that work is left up to Fishback, who does it phenomenally.
Swarm has some terrific moments, but considering the artists involved in its creation, and how often they hit the bull’s eye with their razor-sharp social commentary and dark, surrealistic humor when making Atlanta, it’s unfortunate that this show misses more than it connects. If you want something that’s really incisive and eye-opening about what it means to be a stan, or about how Black women often find themselves walking on a tightrope with no safety net when it comes to their mental health, you’re not likely to find it here.