By now, you’ve heard about Swarm, the Prime Video limited series starring Dominique Fishback as Dre, an obsessed fan whose object of adoration is a suspiciously Beyoncé-like singer named Ni’jah. We’re talking down to videos of Ni’jah on horseback that might as well have been painted with the names of songs from Renaissance and a fanbase called the Swarm.
When Dre gets angry, bees buzz insistently in her ears, becoming the soundtrack to a series of events that Amazon says I can’t tell you about. I don’t know if the penalty is losing my Amazon Prime, but I’m not going to risk it. Let’s suffice it to say that Dre gets angry. A lot. And that anger unleashes much of the mayhem that happens over the seven episodes.
Chloe Bailey (*wink wink* at the obvious Beyoncé tie here) plays Dre’s sister, Marissa, and Snowfall’s Damson Idris is Khalid, Marissa’s boyfriend. The show is set in Houston in April 2016, when two significant things happened in the pop culture landscape. Prince died and Beyoncé released Lemonade in the same week.
If there’s anything I know well, it’s what it’s like to be part of a devoted fanbase. I’m a card-carrying member of the Purple Army, one of the people who have not only followed Prince closely throughout his almost four-decade career but continues to study, discuss and promote his legacy even now that he’s left us in the physical sense.
I have friends and an entire community of folks I know just because of Prince. But our fanbase isn’t prone to violence unless you’re on Twitter suggesting that Michael Jackson was anywhere near the musician Prince was. That might get you virtually jacked up.
So I know about fan obsession, and I can tell you that that’s not what Swarm is really about. Dre’s obsession with Be-I mean, Ni’jah, is more of a plot device to cover co-creators Janine Nabers and Donald Glover’s exploration of what happens to people who are marginalized by society. Dre is a woman who, for reasons we’re never quite sure about, is on the fringes.
Dre is the mousy girl in your eighth grade classroom that no one pays attention to until the police haul her out of class in handcuffs because she’s bludgeoned her grandmother to death.
She’s the quiet girl at the coffee shop that minds her business and sits away from everyone else. If she does speak in passing, she’s perfectly polite, but your skin crawls. We all know a Dre and that’s what makes Fishback’s performance so riveting.
She puts in Emmy-worthy work, using her everyday girl look and ability to blend into the background to her advantage. The things she’s asked to do in carrying all seven episodes have to convince you that she can get people to trust her enough to have her around, and she does that so well it’s chilling.
Fishback should go down in entertainment history as one of the batsh-t crazy characters that stay in your psyche long afterward in the way that those characters when played to the fullest do. Think Joaquin Phoenix as the Joker. Think Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver or Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction. This is that kind of role.
Despite its premise, Swarm strays from its stated theme about the lunatic fringes of an artist’s fanbase. It really takes on the distractive nature of pop culture and the people who buy into it in various ways. There are instantly familiar news stories referenced throughout that millions of people were caught up in, even if just tangentially. Swarm shows how pervasive mass media and social media can be and how they can trigger an already disturbed mind.
There’s little in Swarm that makes Dre sympathetic or even gives you a reasonable explanation about why Ni’jah is the particular artist she feels so connected to. That makes it seem like Glover or Nabers don’t particularly like Beyoncé or at least artists or fanbases similar to hers.
If anything, Swarm will make you feel a great deal of sympathy for Beyoncé as the particular way her fans relate to her must be draining. Twenty plus years of that kind of unchecked adoration is unthinkable if you’ve never personally experienced it. There’s no way 10 Beyoncé’s could ever satisfy that kind of urgent need.
Watching Swarm is like watching a train wreck or a graphic internet video – you know it’s going to be hard to see, but you can’t stop. As the blood keeps flowing and people who interact with Dre with the best of intentions figure out who she really is, it’s too late.
But there’s no payoff for investing that kind of time, and by the end you’ll feel like Dre does, empty and still seeking something to keep her from the edge she frequently goes over.
The strength of Swarm is in the cameos. Billie Eilish plays the leader of what looks like Lululemon devotees if only Lululemon was a creepy NXIVM like-cult.
I didn’t recognize Paris Jackson at first, a nod to obsessive fanbases if there ever was one, but it’s not a stunt performance.
She’s great in the small role, as are Bailey, Kiersey Clemons, Idris, Cree Summer and Norm Lewis. Leon makes one of the most powerful brief appearances in anything I’ve seen lately, and you have to wonder why he’s not getting more roles. Someone please change that.
Also, a certain “Malia Ann” is credited on 105, one of the stronger episodes. I think you know the presidential last name.
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