The anti-hero has long found a place on television. From Walter White to Tony Soprano, series focusing on men misbehaving have long found success. Unfortunately, for women, this approach has been poignantly less effective. Yet, in the last five years, some of these swings have brought a more experimental and funny approach to television. Created by Janine Nabors and Donald Glover, Swarm flexes its experimental muscles. Exploring the depths to which fandom can break one’s mental state, Swarm offers a path forward for a woman anti-hero. Starring the Oscar-nominated Dominique Fishback, Swarm gets bloody, funny, and very sexual over the first two episodes that screened as SXSW 2023.
A young girl named Dre (Fishback) stans a Grammy-winning icon named Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown). Her best friend Marissa (Chloe Bailey) has always gone to shows with her, so Dre buys tickets for Ni’Jah’s upcoming tour. Even though the artist has long been a staple of their relationship, other people poke fun at Dre, saying she’s over-obsessed. After a shocking crime, Dre finds herself on the road, chasing down those who tweet negative thoughts at her Twitter fan account, @TheSwarm.
Nabers and Glover combine their unique sensibilities to create a funny and violent series. Nabers, who previously received acclaim for Watchmen and UnReal, brings her unique approach to Swarm. Glover establishes the visual palette of Swarm in the pilot, but other directors step in to evolve the form. Adamma Edo directs the second episode, which benefits from more lighting, cooler camera angles, and confined spaces. Both episodes bring unique visual elements that quickly sell us on the world.
Fishback delivers an incredible performance over the first two episodes, embracing everything to make Dre come to life. The complicated character sometimes appears to be nothing more than a wallflower. However, in other moments, she brings explicit voyeuristic and sociopathic tendencies to the screen. Fishback embodies each element with grace and finds a way to keep us rooting for a woman who commits some horrific acts. It’s hard not to see a resemblance to Titane through the DNA of the show, but Fishback creates a far more empathetic protagonist.
The series quickly establishes the dangers of stan culture and hyper fandom. Before it pushes Fishback to violence, she shuts down social avenues with those attempting to connect. While not engaging in nerdy behavior, the fandom becomes all-consuming. It may not bear the trademarks of incel culture, but her anger and violent outbursts feel all too familiar. Rather than keeping her actions online, she takes out her vengeance in violent acts of revenge.
Insisting the series is based on real events, the show takes a step away from explicitly calling out Beyoncé fans. However, there are too many signs pointing to the icon to be ignored. Among them, are the number of Grammys won by Ni’Jah (26), the Houston setting and the name “The Swarm.” Glover and his musical team even approximate a Bey song drop in the pilot. It’ll be curious to see if members of the BeyHive enjoy this series or if they see it as a personal attack on their fandom.
Additionally, a subtextual struggle with gender identity and sexual orientation becomes overt through visual language. There are not one or two shots of male genitals. Instead, they become a consistent voyeurist lens through which Fishback observes the world. Even when she does not actively engage in sexual acts, the camera settles on flaccid and aroused men. The overabundance of nudity will turn some viewers away and speaks to a vision of the world where sex and celebrity are intertwined. As celebrities use or avoid sex in their messaging, their acts become more overtly political.
Swarm‘s first two episodes have us prepped for a strange journey ahead. Knowing that Donald and Stephen Glover are attached helps, but Nabers’ storytelling choices feel most important to Swarm’s future. After all, the writer and showrunner has delivered incredibly proactive and unique visions of women gaining power. Swarm appears to keep that tradition alive.