Beautiful settings, a pulpy premise & ominous atmosphere are more than enough to compensate for banal human subplots.
This piece was written during the 2023 WGA and SAG-AFTRA strikes. Without the labor of the writers and actors currently on strike, the series being covered here wouldn’t exist.
The sea is always a great setting for a story. It’s both soothing and menacing; water is cleansing and purifying, and a consistently replenishing source of food. But it’s also dangerous and uncompromising. Water is one of nature’s greatest antagonists, it can get into virtually anything, softening it, weakening it, eventually breaking it apart. But nothing on earth would survive without it. It’s a brilliant metaphor for so many things, as it’s constantly changing and moving and covers wondrous and monstrous secrets. It works even better in visual mediums like TV and film because it’s beautiful to both look at and listen to. The CW’s new eco-thriller, The Swarm, makes good use of its watery locations in establishing an aura of tranquil menace: everything seems calm and orderly, but there’s trouble bubbling up just below the surface.
Filmed in English but financed by Germany, The Swarm is an eight-part limited series based on the novel of the same name by German novelist Frank Schätzing about a mysterious force that turns all ocean animals into bloodthirsty manhunters. Kind of like The Happening but with fish instead of trees. It has the distinction of being the most expensive television show in German history, but how much of the money shows up on screen is still a going concern, as only one episode was provided for review. The Swarm is very much in the we’re-telling-one-long-story style of television, and the first episode is understandably more set up than pay-off.
What effects are present are dicey: some of them look good, some don’t. None are what you’d call great. It’s unfortunate that a show that takes place on and around water and where whales attack boats would come out so close to Avatar: The Way of Water, but them’s the breaks. And it doesn’t really matter anyway as The Swarm is clearly modeled more like a Michael Crichton-style science based mystery than a James Cameron epic.
But with a mystery, it’s hard to know if they’re good or not until the ending is revealed, and what’s been provided barely has time to establish the mystery, let alone hint at where it’s all going. That said, what’s been provided is not without charm. It looks terrific, maximizing those watery locations we talked about to infuse the show with a real sense of place. This is one of those stories about a disparate group of people scattered all over the world who are brought together by fate to combat a global threat. To begin, though, the show is mostly centered on a little seaside town on Canada’s Vancouver Island and a lighthouse turned research post on the edge of Ireland’s Shetland Island. Both towns’ economies are inexorably tied to the sea, both in terms of fishing, and scientific study.
In Vancouver, local authorities are troubled by a dead orca that washes up on the beach. The whale is covered in cuts, making it clear that it died violently, and by human hands. When marine biologist Leon Anawak (Joshua Odjick) tracks down the killers, he learns they were local fishermen acting in self-defense after the whale savagely and inexplicably attacked their boat. Meanwhile, over in Ireland, Charlie Wagner (Leoine Benesch) is a mysteriously disgraced researcher sentenced (for reasons that will presumably be revealed later) to map the seabed floor off the coast of Shetland Island. She’s out on the ocean doing just that when she comes across a chunk of methane hydrate, an ice-like solid that occurs when water freezes around a large pocket of methane. Methane hydrate is usually found at the bottom of the sea, but sometimes something jarring happens down there, and a little chunk will rise to the surface. But it’s not one little chunk this time, and Charlie is amazed and slightly unnerved when dozens of chunks of the stuff bob up and down in the water around her little boat.
Obviously these two plots will converge, but for now they’re two uncharacteristic and eerie signs of deeper trouble. Both plots are atmospheric and mysterious; and the dark, misty Ireland scenes contrast nicely with the clear, sunny (relative to Ireland at night anyway) Canada sequences. The combined effect projects an agreeable air of menace. There’s no hiding from what’s coming in the pitch black of night, and the bright rays of the sun won’t chase it away. Less successful are the stabs at romantic subplots – Charlie has a one night stand with a local fisherman that might turn into something more, and Leon has a stable long term girlfriend who leads whale watching tours, but trouble looms on the horizon. Neither subplot is particularly interesting, but so far Charlie’s is the more compelling of the two. To be frank, the feisty, impulsive Charlie is across the board more interesting than steady, quiet Leon. Even her hair is better, it’s short, red and messy, as opposed to his long brown hair pulled into a contained ponytail (it is a messy ponytail though, suggesting some hidden wildness).
But the good and interesting in The Swarm generally outweighs the cheesy and boring, and I would be lying if I said I wasn’t concerned about the people smooshed by that whale. There’s nothing particularly exceptional about the series, but compared to that berserk animals-strike-back show Zoo from a few years ago, it’s Moby Dick. Or at least The Hunt For Red October or whatever. Plus it’s short. Eight episodes just isn’t long enough to expand into Lost-style stalling and absurdity. It’s kind of like earlier when we were talking about water, the surface is pretty and attractive, but it’s still unclear what’s just beneath the surface. It’s always a little bit of a risk to dive in, you can never be sure what’s under there until you’re right there with it, and it’s always possible that you’ll be eaten by a shark (the shark in this case being not enjoying a TV show, look it’s not a perfect metaphor), but it looks pretty good so far, so maybe jump in.
The Swarm premieres today on The CW.