Swarm is a Stan Culture Satire With No Sting
Despite an incredible lead performance from Dominique Fishback, Swarm will only leave you buzzing with dissatisfaction.
Since Atlanta’s conclusion within the past year, many wondered what was next for creator Donald Glover and his collaborators. No need to worry — Glover has pivoted from surrealist satire of contemporary Black culture to internet stan culture. Through his and co-creator Janine Nabers’ latest project Swarm, they pull from real-life pop culture/Black Twitter myths to develop a horror series about a serial killer who stans. Despite its promising premise, Swarm’s stinging commentary is a little too familiar.
Internet stan culture is a lot to handle. Fandoms start wars against one another, harass people online they don’t even know and are completely deluded into thinking that it’s a reflection of reality. No fan is more delusional than Dre (Dominique Fishback), a compulsive stan of pop star Ni’Jah (a Beyoncé stand-in). Dre spends her days online obsessing over Ni’jah, spending a bunch of money she doesn’t have to attend her concerts and completely maxing out credit cards sent to her in the process. “I think the second she sees me; she’ll know we’re connected, and she'll invite us back to her house for dinner. I can feel it,” she says.
Meanwhile, her sister/roommate Marissa (Chloe Bailey) is exhausted, working several jobs to pay both of their rent. A series of unfortunate events — including Dre being late for work, Marissa’s sleazy boyfriend (Damson Idris) making a pass on Dre, and their joint financial troubles — put the two at a crossroads. After a heated argument between the two, Dre goes out for a night of drinking and partying. She then returns home to a shocking sight. As she seeks retribution, she gets a craving for blood, enacting a year-spanning serial-killing crime spree, all associated with her love for Ni’Jah.
Actress Dominique Fishback has been steamrolling each project she stars in with her commanding presence and a wide array of natural emotions. Here, Fishback offers a career-best performance that completely chills to the bone. Through the opening episode, she effortlessly exhibits a frightening portrayal of delusional obsession through her darting eyes and menacing, mercurial presence. God forbid one thing is said against her favorite artist Ni’Jah — you’d be digging your own grave. As the series wears on, Fishback becomes increasingly terrifying with each shocking and disturbing murder Dre commits. The kills waver between cathartic, petty, or done just for the hell of it; and with each one, Fishback’s nonchalant attitude leaves you feeling completely shell-shocked.
Throughout the seven-episode season, Dre is dropped in a humorous universe where she’s a victim of circumstance making the best of situations she falls into. Each episode is inspired by a facet of reality paralleling Beyoncé moments like “who bit Beyoncé” and the “Solange Elevator Beatdown,” which are all comedically humorous in concept but feel prolonged as it builds up to their punch. The punchlines had an impactful sting, primarily thanks to Fishback’s unpredictable performance, contrasted against whichever featured guest star she’s paired with. Some of the episodic misadventures feature appearances by Paris Jackson, Byron Bowers, and Kiersey Clemons, as a few of the quirky people who cross paths with Dre.
Swarm bears Atlanta’s similar dry, darkly comedic humor and surrealism. While a satire like Atlanta has leeway to go as absurd as it wants, Swarm falls short of carving out its own consistent identity. The series tries to deliver straightforward slasher beats with an absurdist coat of paint, but it doesn’t do enough with its internet-culture focus to feel cohesive. It’s not entirely sure if it wants to be a character study on a misunderstood serial killer or a satire on Black culture. Whenever it tries to wed the two ideas, it falls short of saying anything. While having its Queen Elizabeth moment, the story beats all come across as a bit clunky and insufficient as it increasingly turns up its horror factor. As far as direction goes, Swarm is invitingly gritty. Episodes helmed by either Donald Glover or Adamma Ebo (Honk for Jesus, Save Your Soul) stand out because they harken to Atlanta’s stylish flair but with a horrific bite.
Some of the best satirical beats lie within each episode’s opening disclaimer declaring that “this not a work of fiction,” leading the audience to believe that Dre is a real person — even I got fooled and did a deep Google search to find evidence. The series plays with this gimmick further in a clever bottle episode that takes the form of a true-crime docuseries — one that particularly stands out as a refreshing penultimate diversion before a final downer episode.
Despite an incredible leading performance from Dominique Fishback — whose terrifying turn warrants a recommendation alone — Swarm doesn’t take its premise to its full potential. The tonal inconsistency and bizarre sympathetic angle it takes with its lead will only leave you buzzing with dissatisfaction.