Dominique Fishback Is Bloody Brilliant in Beyoncé-Inspired Thriller ‘Swarm’: TV Review
“Who’s your favorite artist?” asks Dre (Dominique Fishback) of the characters she meets along her journey in “Swarm,” Prime Video’s clever and fiendish horror satire. She poses the question with a cheerful lilt that belies the menace behind it, much like Ghostface when he conducts targeted phone surveys about the slasher genre in the “Scream” franchise. Dre’s respondents don’t know how high the stakes are, nor that there’s a correct answer: Ni’Jah, a messianic pop princess who bears striking similarities to Beyoncé, right down to the cultish following with zero appetite for dissent.
Dre lives a mostly unexamined life in pre-pandemic Houston, fumbling through her 20s without much direction aside from whatever will get her closer to her favorite singer’s inner circle. Her roommate, Marissa (Chloe Bailey), is just as enamored of Ni’Jah, but is hustling as a hair and makeup artist to break into the entertainment field. Dre, meanwhile, bounces between dead-end day jobs when she’s not taking the stage at a gentleman’s club to perform dances that are more esoteric than exotic. Despite working as a stripper, Dre is mystified by sex, a curiosity Marissa’s creeper boyfriend (Damson Idris) uses to manipulate her.
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Not much distinguishes Dre except for being the most devoted among a notoriously rabid fanbase. She’s memorized every album and learned all of the choreography. She’s plunging herself into financial ruin to buy a concert ticket that’s priced like a jumbo mortgage payment. She’s basically the embodiment of “The Beygency,” the classic “Saturday Night Live” sketch about enforcers who make unpersons of anyone daring to insult Queen Bey, however mildly. Just how far will Dre go to show her commitment to the cult of Ni’Jah? It’s no spoiler to say she’ll go way, way too far, leaving blood spatter in her wake.
If the logline sounds like one of those left-of-left-field, self-contained episodes of “Atlanta,” that’s because “Swarm” is the creation of Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, who previously collaborated on that show. The Glover-directed pilot could be dropped into “Atlanta’s” especially ominous second season as-is. Like that show, “Swarm” combines metacommentary about Black culture with arch comedy and Lynchian horror. (As if to add to the show’s surreal aura, Malia Obama worked in the “Swarm” writers’ room, and is credited as simply Malia Ann.)
“Swarm” is just as much a melanated fever dream, with all the music video-inspired visual flourishes that suggest. But unlike “Atlanta,” “Swarm” is linear even when it’s not literal. Dre embarks on a road trip from the hometown she and Ni’Jah share to fulfill her dream of meeting her idol and becoming fast friends. The more traditional narrative creates a growing sense of dread as Dre moves from point A to point B, lending an intensity “Atlanta” could never sustain given all its scenic detours.
There’s been plenty of storytelling about toxic fandom in recent years as social media has supercharged the parasocial relationship. But contemporary stories about destructive fandom invariably focus on young, disaffected white men. (Granted, Redditors fitting that general description are usually atop the suspect list when a project deemed too diverse or irreverent gets review-bombed.) “Swarm” innovates and intrigues simply by centering a young Black woman in a story of ruinous devotion.
“Swarm” smartly backgrounds Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown), who’s more of a specter than a character. She appears in shadows and silhouettes, only occasionally revealed by a flashbulb. Like her superstar inspiration, Ni’Jah is at once overexposed and unknowable. She’s in every scene despite being in so few, and not much defines her besides the biographical details that barely disguise their source. (Ni’Jah is in a high-profile marriage with an equally famous rapper called Caché, and they’ve recently welcomed twins.) What we know about Ni’Jah comes directly from Dre, the ultimate unreliable narrator.
Because the show relies so heavily on its lead, “Swarm” is, above all things, a spectacular showcase for Fishback. She’s been quietly building an impressive body of work for years, and judging from this ravenous turn she’s done being quiet. The most striking aspect of Fishback’s performance is its off-kilter physicality. The show’s horror elements are confined to the slasher genre with bloody kills that come early and often. But Fishback’s twitches and tics are pure body horror, something more akin to a tale of demonic possession. Her choices are intensified by the shrewd sound design, which features the unsettling buzz of an active hive whenever Dre is pushed to emotional extremes.
With just seven episodes, most running at around 30 minutes, “Swarm” also adds to Prime Video’s strong track record of brisk half-hour dramas that can be comfortably binged in an afternoon. Dre’s road trip imposes a sturdy structure, with each episode focused on the latest stop in her pilgrimage. There’s room for plenty of satisfying guest roles, the buzziest of which is an appearance from Billie Eilish as the creepy doyenne of a NXIVM-inspired women’s cult. Another memorable guest performance comes from former “Daily Show” writer X Mayo, who’s been the secret weapon of NBC’s “American Auto” and is just as much a firecracker here.
The only true misstep comes in the back half of the season, which features a big stylistic swing that not only fails, but manages to break the morbid trance the show spends so much time earning. It would be poor form to spoil the gambit, but suffice it to say that at a certain point metafiction becomes masturbatory, and one episode fully wallows in self-congratulations. Beyond that, the episode brings with it a jarring tonal shift that halts the action at the worst possible moment even as it delivers illuminating exposition.
That one miscalculation aside, “Swarm” is a trip worth taking, and despite drawing so much inspiration from Beyoncé, it never skewers or lampoons her. In fact, it’s just as reverent towards its messianic pop goddess as Dre is, and will be a fun watch for even the most sensitive drones in the Beyhive. It serves as a comforting reminder that no matter how crazy or drunk in love you are with your favorite celebrity, there’s always someone crazier and more intoxicated.
All episodes of “Swarm” premiere on Prime Video on March 17.
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