You know Ni’Jah. Every last inch of her shines: her hair, her eyes, her teeth, the beads and paillettes that sparkle with every hip movement or arm movement, but most of all, her skin. She has the look that she should look like royalty. Her pronouncements, delivered in songs and music videos, move mountains. And, as with any queen, her domestic orbit is common knowledge: the rapper husband with the capitalist hustle and the wandering eye, her twins, the talented but hopelessly overshadowed younger sister. Ni’Jah’s popularity alone is the subject of intense debate: the masses are perpetually at war over whether she is overrated or underrated, but at the edges of her public image other controversies linger: the fight in the elevator, the bite on the face, Becky.
However, the object of fascination in “Swarm,” the new horror-thriller series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, isn’t this unmistakable Beyoncé doppelganger. Rather, it’s the fierce devotion that she, or any superstar, can inspire. The show’s hook is irresistible: a Ni’Jah mega-fan named Dre (played by Dominique Fishback) stalks and kills anyone who disrespects his favorite singer. A more absurd version of the character would have been right at home in Glover’s “Atlanta,” for which Nabers also wrote; the final season of that show featured a serial killer targeting participants of a social media dance challenge set to Soulja Boy’s 2007 hit “Crank That.” But this darker, meaner series, on Prime Video, succeeds neither as satire nor as a psychological study. Give him a couple of shakes and the glitter falls off right away.
Forget the Ni’Jah songs (which is easy to do, since the show doesn’t bother to make them memorable); The aural signature of “Swarm” is the crunch of fast food wrappers and potato chip bags, along with the insect-like buzz that heralds Dre’s sudden bouts of violence. The series begins in the dreary Houston apartment that the fantasy-prone Dre shares with his former adoptive sister and only friend, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), a mall clerk and aspiring makeup artist who supports her financially. (Glover, who directs the first episode, conveys the stark confines of Dre’s world with dimly lit interiors and jarring cuts between scenes.) As young black girls, Dre and Marissa bonded over their love for Ni’Jah. But Marissa is ready to grow up; she’d rather spend her birthday with her boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris), than with Dre at a Ni’Jah concert, even if Dre opened a new credit card to get premium tickets. Dre’s dedication to Marissa seems childish, but Khalid isn’t wrong when he senses a budding sexual curiosity in her, he just mistakenly believes she’s meant for him. Before long, Dre is irrevocably cut off from the only person who cares about her. She becomes untethered and free.
The season moves towards a morbid, ironic tease: What if the female empowerment and self-actualization espoused by Ni’Jah anthems were channeled into a call for mass murder? (“Leveling up,” says Ni’Jah in Dre’s ringtone, the boss’s catchphrase never failing to be grimly funny.) In the second episode, Dre is on the road, an inevitable trope of hit TV. prestige these days, where he finds a sense of purpose in hunting down Internet trolls who disparage Ni’Jah. Eventually, she herself becomes tantalizingly close to the singer.
Delusional and tense, the seven-part season is strongest in the first few outings, when it’s unclear where Dre is headed and the writers are most at odds with plot conventions. Those episodes also suffer less from the series’ tonal clutter; we are allowed a perverse satisfaction in Dre’s semi-sympathetic anti-heroism. And in these opening chapters, the supporting characters are drawn more sharply: a group of Tennessee strippers whose sooral advances on Dre, the new girl at the club, backfire; a formerly obese man (Byron Bowers) who invites Dre over to her house and promptly dumps her for the combination of sex and junk food she offers.
“Swarm” also dangles delicacies in front of his audience, but he seems more interested in whetting our appetites than satiating them. “This is not a work of fiction,” announces a title card at the beginning of most episodes, subverting the familiar legalese that concludes many television credits. “Any similarity to real people, living or dead, or real events, is intentional.” Given this nod toward social commentary, it’s striking how little the writers, including Malia Obama, credited as Malia Ann, have to say about the issues they present. They claim no particular admiration for or criticism of Beyoncé, whose analogue has a distant, generic charm and hardly differs from her musical peers. (At least the jokes about Queen Bey, while tame, are consistently clever.) The show also doesn’t provide much insight into extreme bigotry, a toxic and powerful force online, which the series likens to Dre’s stunted palate. Glover and Nabers may be drawing parallels between the unreliability of family units and the amorphous (swarm-like) of any fan community, but honestly, they’re probably catching up. Adding to the frustration is the show’s inexplicable time setting: Most of the action takes place between 2016 and 2018, perhaps because those are the years, after the release of Beyoncé’s “Lemonade,” when Hive was in full force, before of being supplanted in vigilance and fervor by other fanbases, such as BTS Army. The previous presidential administration wasn’t that long ago, but the cultural centrality of Twitter already feels dated. Fans have moved on to video.
The Trump-era review proves fruitless, and the look back awkwardly mocks the freshness of the talent. A feline Billie Eilish has a notable role as an amateur hypnotist hoping to recruit Dre into her white-girl hippie-twee cult, and Kiersey Clemons injects a mischievous vivacity that becomes crucial to Dre’s character arc. Most enchantingly, Paris Jackson (Michael’s daughter) enjoys a bit of mischievous stunt casting, playing a wannabe Thelma to Dre’s Louise. But it is Fishback who reigns over the production. The actress was a fan favorite on “The Deuce,” where, in her character’s lowest moments Darlene of hers, her eyes begged for ransom that she would not come. The very look she sees is complicated by a character like Dre, at once naive and ruthless, in control but completely lost. As a drifter, Dre tries out a variety of gender expressions, from sparkly stripper clothing to a more masculine (or trans-masculine) costume. Fishback leads them with misandric scorn, then childish arrogance.
But even his wonderfully versatile acting can’t make up for the pale character development and tonal wobble that sinks the series. As the body count increases, Dre becomes more and more opaque. She’s ridiculously reckless; on the way to Bonnaroo, she drives a car with the back seat soaked in blood. Ella (She is stopped by a white cop who is too busy harassing her to realize that she has stumbled upon a murderer.) a shrewd if falsely folksy detective (Heather Alicia Simms) who retraces Dre’s crime spree. If, in this show within a show, the seemingly insane policewoman doused in spicy Cheetos holds up the theory, her suspect would be one of the most prolific serial killers in history.
Dre doesn’t kill to dominate but to defend, however unlikely the need for such protection may be. That’s a significant difference between her and the archetypal white male serial killer, but “Swarm” seems unwilling to deal with the dubious milestone of black female sociopathy she presents, instead tiptoeing through social conditions. that contributed to Dre’s rocky childhood, as well as the expectations that help her elude capture. Dre’s gradual descent into tragic villainy is wobbly and yet nonetheless heartwarming; Few scenes this year gutted me quite like the sequence in which he has to look away from one of his ultimate victims, sacrificing his own potential happiness in obedient service to a higher power. ♦