- “Swarm,” the first series from Donald Glover following the conclusion of “Atlanta,” is a bloody satire about a superfan who seeks vengeance upon anyone who would dare talk down her favorite singer.
- Critics applaud the ambition, ideas and subversion of the Prime Video show even if they feel the execution is more surface-layer than profound.
- Intriguing click-bait casting choices include roles for Michael Jackson’s daughter, Paris Jackson, and Billie Eilish.
The first series from Donald Glover following the conclusion of Atlanta, Swarm obviously aims to provoke — or, in a more on-theme metaphor, pack some sting.
Glover’s new show is designed to make headlines, proclaims Alison Herman at The Ringer. Most critics agree with her that, while packing more punch than most, the series has so much demanding our attention that it ultimately lacks focus.
The pop star character and her fan entourage at the center of the seven-episode, 30-minute limited series is figuratively if not quite literally intended to be Beyoncé and her Beyhive.
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 character, Ni’Jah, is a musician whose fans call her “queen” and “goddess,” and who surprise-drops visual albums that take over the internet. “[She] doesn’t resemble Beyoncé,” Vulture’s Roxana Hadadi finds. “She is Beyoncé, and Swarm has no interest in pretending otherwise.”
The series investigates stardom — or, rather, “stan-dom” — the obsessive nature of fans and celebrity cults. Swarm is Glover’s first project under his lucrative deal with Amazon Prime Video and is co-created with Janine Nabers.
They say they drew inspiration from real events that occurred between 2016 and 2018, which does happen to include the release of Beyonce’s 2016 visual album Lemonade and the #WhoBitBeyonce internet debate.
The show is, in some ways, its predecessor’s inverse, observes Herman. “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 who’s been part of the Beyhive — sorry, Ni’Jah’s ‘Swarm’ — since she was a teenager.”
Asked by Variety’s Angelique Jackson just how far they pushed the truth of these events — and whether they ever worried about how far Amazon would let them go — Nabers said: “Everything is legally combed through. If we pushed it, we pushed it to the very, very, very edge, but it’s legal and we’re proud of that.”
It is in fact Dre, played by Dominique Fishback, who is the series’ protagonist, and by the end of the first episode she is revealed to be more than a little deranged.
She goes on a killing spree in honor of her dead best friend and to protect, as she sees it, Ni’Jah.
Glover explained to Jackson that the concept of a Black woman serial killer was born a tweet he read.
“I remember them saying like, ‘Why are we always lawyers and, like, best friends? We can be murderers, too.’ And I was like, ‘That is true,’” Glover said.
READ MORE: ‘Swarm’: Donald Glover, Dominique Fishback and Janine Nabers on Subverting Expectations With a Black Woman Serial Killer
Nabers follows this thought up with Ben Travers at IndieWire, referencing how Dahmer recently became a huge Netflix hit.
“I think as Americans, we’re so conditioned to seeing white men be angry. We’re giving them that space for violence on film and TV.”
She added, “Our writers’ room was completely Black,” she said. “All our directors are Black, [and] most of our producers are Black.”
In imagining what it would look like if the serial killer subgenre focused on a Black woman instead of a white man, the terminology they used was “alien.”
READ MORE: Donald Glover’s ‘Swarm’ Descends on SXSW as Premiere Draws Gasps, Laughs, and Beyoncé Questions (IndieWire)
“[Dre] is an alien in her own world,” Nabers told Selome Hailu at Variety. “If you look at the pilot, when she gets to Khalid’s house, there’s aliens on TV. That’s a through line with her throughout the series. We looked to [Michael Haneke’s] The Piano Teacher for inspiration. Donald introduced that movie to me, and it blew my mind. It centers around a woman who has a very everyday way of living her life on the surface, and then when you peel back the layers of her complicated psychology, you unearth a completely different type of human that is very alien-feeling.
“But me being from Houston and Donald being from Atlanta, we wanted to filter it through a Southern, Black female perspective. It is a little bit like a sister Atlanta when you look at the weird family relationships.”
The show’s casting is one not so subtle way of grabbing headlines. Paris Jackson, Michael Jackson’s daughter, plays a character who presents as white but calls herself Black because she has one Black grandparent. Casting director Carmen Cuba apparently pitched Paris Jackson.
“We were like, “Exactly. That’s exactly what we’re talking about,” Nabers told Hailu. “I’m a Jewish woman, she’s identifies as Jewish, so we bonded about that. She really just owned this character of a light-passing biracial woman who is really intent on letting everyone know about her Blackness.”
READ MORE: ‘Swarm’ Co-Creator Unpacks Dre’s Sexuality, Paris Jackson’s Casting and That Pie-Eating Scene (Variety)
Chloe Bailey plays Dre’s sister and a protégé of Queen Bey herself, increasing Swarm’s connection to its all-but-explicit subject.
READ MORE: Beyoncé Gifts Chloe Bailey Flowers After Her BET Awards 2022 Performance: ‘Making Me Proud’ (People)
Episode four guest stars Billie Eilish, who makes her acting debut on the show as the leader of a women’s cult — an intentional parallel to her role as a pop star.
Critics largely give the show a thumbs up for its ambition and subversive qualities.
“That Swarm is only intermittently successful doesn’t make it any easier to look away from the screen,” says Mike Hale in The New York Times.
He astutely observes that Swarm inhabits the space between horror and comedy where Atlanta often thrived.
Hale adds, “It’s not hard to understand why more and more filmmakers are choosing the horror genre for stories set in contemporary America, particularly those involving the lives of people outside the white-male protective bubble.”
“Think the Coen Brothers meets Atlanta meets Carrie, with some Basic Instinct and Perfect Blue thrown in there too,” writes Pitchfork’s Alphonse Pierre. “Celebrities are worshiped — and they often turn a blind eye to their obsessed fans’ worst behavior while milking their fanaticism for every last dollar.”
It also has some the stylistic trademarks of Atlanta which, like that show, have also made it uneven. Like Atlanta’s mockumentary episode for instance one episode of Swarm is done in true-crime documentary style.
“Swarm needs much more clarity on what it wants to say about fandom in general and the specific fan at its center,” finds Herman in The Ringer. “Violent, vicious, and extremely online, Swarm obviously aims to provoke. Once the buzz dies down, though, there’s not much substance to sustain the hype.”
Vulture’s Hadadi says, “Swarm feels boldest when it wonders when person-to-person devotion becomes abstract glorification, and what inner mechanics inspire someone to give themselves over to another.”
READ MORE: Swarm’s Most Dangerous Devotion (Vulture)
“Thankfully, as the series progresses, it reveals itself to be much more than a stylized parody centered around what many might consider obvious internet bait,” writes Kyndall Cunningham of The Daily Beast. “Beneath the Beyoncé of it all, Swarm is ultimately a story about grief and isolation.”
Hale is particularly critical, believing that Swarm doesn’t work through or make strong dramatic use of all its ideas and “ends in a formless, non-sequiturish manner. It feels as if no one really knew where they wanted to take things,” he says.
“In the balance of the season, the viscous, seductive ambience and dream-logic storytelling mostly fade out, replaced by high-concept, tonally garish episodes that hold your attention but stand alone like neon billboards, adding little to our understanding of Dre beyond the facts of her back story, doled out in typical streaming-series style.”
Nabers seems to defend their approach, saying that they deliberately steered clear of definitive messaging.
“I don’t think that, as a brand, Donald and I believe in a message,” she commented during a Q&A following the film’s premiere at SXSW, as Variety’s Hailu reported in a separate article. “People can interpret it the way that they want to. We hope it inspires people in some way to create weird punk shit, or to talk