Donald Glover and friends explore what happens when pop star ultra-fandom goes very wrong.
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It starts out like a glossy teen drama in the style of Euphoria. A pop star’s coming to town. A fan wants to get front row tickets for her and her best friend. She logs in to a Ticketmaster pre-sale (perhaps the first indication you’re being welcomed into hell). A whopping $1800 later and she’s in. She takes to Twitter to boast about it. A fan and her best friend are living out their teenage fantasies and going to see their favourite pop star Ni’jah, a mega-huge performer who is, quite obviously, based on Beyoncé.
Then they have a fight and things … well, let’s just say, they take a turn.
To reveal how that first episode ends would be to spoil the grisly delights of Swarm, Donald Glover’s new Amazon Prime show that looks and feels like a very grim season of Atlanta – if Jordan Peele was invited into the writers room to get his grubby hands all over the script. It’s creepy. It’s mayhem. It’s carnage. It’s bleak. By the end of these seven episodes, as the bodies pile up, you’ll be covering your eyes a lot. Horror, darkness, and plenty of stings await all those who enter this particular beehive.
To say this is what Donald Glover did next is to dismiss the talents of Dominique Fishback. As the show’s lead Dre, a superfan and a serial killer, she delivers a star turn. Her eyes dart, roll around in her head, glaze over, go blank, then swim sharply into focus. She’s unhinged, shovelling food into her face, gargling apple juice, eyeballing people and, occasionally, killing them. She’s incredible, but don’t take my word for it. “I wanted her performance to be brutal. It’s just a raw thing,” Glover told Vulture. “She’s a special actor. Definitely one of the best I’ve worked with.”
Hingeing all this on Glover, who executive produced Swarm and directed its first episode, also diminishes the work of Janine Nabers, the show’s co-creator. Like Black Mirror, Peele’s Get Out, or Atlanta, Nabers places Dre in familiar locations – grubby flats, dive bars, backyards, diners – before turning everything on its head. Once you know what Dre’s capable of, a simple drink at a bar is riddled with tension. Glover pitched Nabers the idea based on a tweet, and she ran with it. “I was very much just into this idea of, well, who are the serial killers that look like me? And do they exist?”
Like the Atlanta episode based on a George Floyd protest looting incident, much of Swarm has already happened. Glover and Nabers pulled this story together from real-life headlines. “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional,” says the show’s opening credits, and it’s not entirely wrong. “It really is just about taking events that existed on Twitter, on social media, as rumors or real news stories, real murders, and just connecting the dots with our character,” Nabers told Elle. Glover, to Vulture: “Bro, we steal everything. Anything that works, we will take it.”
Underneath it all, Swarm is a story about the dangerous intensity of fan fever. That couldn’t be more timely. Look at the way Harry Styles fans criticised his new girlfriend Olivia Wilde. Look at the absolute dedication of Billie Eilish’s Avocados. Right now, Ticketmaster is regretting ever messing with Swifties. In Swarm, all those Beyoncé references needed approval from Queen Bey herself. (It says something about just how good Swarm is that she agreed.) Glover and Nabers have created something timely and prescient, a show that pulls from everyday life to reach into the darkest depths of the soul. It’s not for everyone. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.