As someone who follows Donald Glover’s career closely, I was surprised I completely missed anything regarding his and Janine Nabers’ new show Swarm. After watching it, I know the internet will be buzzing with positivity about it. Donald Glover has never let me down, and he continues this tradition. His music helped me get through some really tough times in my life, and Atlanta made me feel like cable television shows can still be groundbreaking and transcending. A little over a year ago, it was reported that Glover signed a multi-year deal with Amazon, and among the projects is a reboot of Mr. & Mrs. Smith, as well as a trilogy of films. Glover fans are surely in for a hell of a ride.
Swarm is a thought-provoking horror/thriller series following Dre (Dominique Fishback), whose obsession with pop star Ni’jah (Nirine S. Brown) takes a sinister turn. Going into Swarm I’m not too sure what I was expecting. Atlanta really flexed some of Glover’s horror muscles with Season 2 Episode 6 “Teddy Perkins,” and some brilliant episodes in Season 3 with Episode 1 “Three Slaps” and Episode 10 “Tarrare” to name a few. What’s great about Glover when he tackles is how unconventional it is. Nearly every episode of Atlanta has some element of horror to it, it’s honestly impressive how he can spin a comedy series into a surreal nightmare.
Everything about Swarm works for me, and I think it will connect with audiences as a whole. The deep moments of horror are often cushioned with dark comedy creating a viscerally uncomfortable experience that will sit with you hours, no, days after viewing. Where the horror detours from typical horror shows is how the genre elements work with the story but don’t take away from it. Non-genre fans have long judged horror for its typical lack of substance, I mean even the most “prestigious” awards ceremony doesn’t take our genre seriously. Swarm shines with how accessible it makes the horror. If you’re a tried and true genre fan you will be able to pick out those elements of horror, and the nongenre fans will be able to recognize those moments while not having it take away from the serious nature of the show.
Multi-award-winning and nominated Dominique Fishback truly embodies the role of Dre, bringing Glover and Nabers’ characters fully rounded. Even though we’re only three months into this year, I can confidently say Fishback’s performance will hands down be one of the greatest television performances of the year. Her nuanced execution of Dre is perfectly juxtaposed with the myriad of wild and exuberant characters she meets along her journey. Fishback runs with the basic infantility of Dre and fleshes out a fully-rounded character that seems like it would have been very hard to pull off. Dre is firm and concise with her actions, but you can really feel that there are pure adolescent reactions to her specific actions. One of the films that Glover and Nabers said inspired them, and the film they made their actors watch, was The Piano Teacher so if you’ve seen that then you know what vibe this show is really going for.
In a cast interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Janine Nabers discusses how they took ideas and news stories from everything from Twitter to the actual news and put Dre right in the crosshairs. While the show is still highly fictionalized, there feels to be almost a sincerity to the situations that really make it feel like you’re watching true events unfold. Glover and Nabers made a very bold choice with the opening of each episode. Whereas every film or show you watch ends with the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer, Swarm opens every episode with “[T]his is not a work of fiction,” and “[A]ny similarities to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” This is definitely a bold move to make. It should be noted, I went back and checked, and each episode does end with, “[W]hile this story is inspired by certain actual events, it is a work of fiction” followed by the “all persons fictitious” disclaimer.
Writer and Co-EP Jamal Olori, in The Hollywood Reporter interview, discussed the importance of race for this show. He mentions how we haven’t really seen black female serial killers, and how it was important to really get this one right. Nabers doubles down on this in the interview by saying how black women in film/TV are usually someone’s teacher or their confidant. One of the things that really grabbed me with Swarm was how unique it felt in the way that it was a character I have maybe seen before but not in this capacity. I’m sure whomever Glover and Nabers would have picked to play Dre would have been fine, but I think without Dominique Fishback the show would have been wildly different.
As with any Donald Glover project you know there is going to be a heavy emphasis on music, especially a show about a pop star. I have listened to a good amount of Beyoncé, but I would say if I had to pick between her and Ni’jah, I’d go with Ni’jah. Both diegetic and non-diegetic music works well with the story. The soundtrack that goes along with the show is spectacular, and if they ever release a vinyl of the soundtrack I would be on that in a second. But what is really impressive is how much time and effort they put forth to create the sounds of the musicians within the show. The only time I have ever really enjoyed musicians in a film was Scott Pilgrim vs. The World and Get Him To The Greek, with Swarm I just couldn’t get over how realistic the musicians sounded. Most films/TV that has musicians in them just seems like the intern in the writer’s room was told to write a song in half an hour and move on. When you have a show that is literally creating a Beyoncé type character you really need to make sure the music they are creating in this universe is great.
The show may be based around the idea of Beyoncé stans, but it really reminded me of Barbz, and a little bit of Barbz versus Bardigang. For those that don’t know Barbz are what Nicki Minaj fans refer to themselves as, and Bardigang is for Cardi B fans. (though Cardi B did tweet out of a possible rebranding of the name in 2022, it doesn’t look like it stuck). Now I want to tread lightly here for a few reasons. First and foremost, I have nothing but the utmost respect for Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, I think they’ve both created excellent careers and I’m happy to see them thriving. Secondly…these fans can get quite brutal. I’ve read entire hundred-entry Twitter threads of Barbz v Bardigang and they can be pretty harsh with things like death threats, videos of Barbz v Bardigang fights, to literal doxing. I have never really seen anyone in the Beyhive take things that far, so while Ni’jah may be based on Beyoncé, Dre’s obsession really seems to fall under the Barbz level of fandom.
One last thing I wanted to touch on is the pacing of Swarm. If you’ve watched Atlanta you would be familiar with how Glover likes to use pacing and timelines to help give his stories an edge. Some episodes of Atlanta will end on a specific day and the next one will pick up weeks later. I can see how some people might not be a fan of that type of storytelling, but it really works for Swarm. It gives the audience some homework and makes you think. After the “all people real” disclaimer, almost every episode starts with a timeframe title card. Episode 1 “Stung,” tells us we’re in Houston, Texas in April 2016 and only a few days pass in the episode, which is followed by quite the time jump in Episode 2 “Honey” taking place in Fayetteville, Tennessee in August 2017. Each episode slowly becomes closer and closer, timewise, to one another. This adds an air of horror as well, showing that Dre is escalating her acts and becoming more dangerous.
Oh yeah, and did I mention that Malia Obama was a staff writer for Swarm?!
Episode 6 “Fallin’ Through The Cracks” is the least horror of any episode, and it was my favorite. It is the most tonally different of all the other episodes but it still finds a way to work within the world of this show. Unlike the vignette episodes of Atlanta, “Fallin’ Through The Cracks” gives us a break from the extreme anxiety of Dre and gives us a little bit of a mental break. This episode made me think two things. One is Detective Loretta Greene (Heather Simms) needs a spinoff show with Benoit Blanc and two why is Heather Simms not a bigger actor? Simms was great in the extremely underrated Vampires vs. The Bronx and Luke Cage. I hope Swarm brings Simms the recognition she truly deserves.
Swarm has infested my mind since watching it. I watched it three times before writing this. It’s a truly important show that I think everyone needs to watch. It may leave some genre fans wanting more of the horror aspect, but I think Glovers and Nabers perfectly incorporated comedy, drama, and horror to create one extremely well-rounded show. With a stellar cast, a tight story, and one hell of a ride, Swarm is hands down one of the greatest horror shows, and shows in general, of the past 10 years.