While it may not be everyone’s cup of Lemonade, Swarm gives plenty of thrills and a fantastic performance by Dominique Fishback.
Every episode of Amazon’s Swarm begins with a title card that reads, “This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.”
The ‘based on a true story’ schtick is a common trope in media, but rarely is it presented so bluntly. The irony is showrunners Donald Glover and Janine Nabers made the plot out of whole cloth, at least as far as my limited Google skills could determine. But they’ve taken the intricacies of modern-day fan culture from real life. The result is a creepy thriller that manages to stay grounded in reality even when it slips into the surreal.
It’s Houston in 2016. Sisters Andrea “Dre” (Dominique Fishback) and Marissa (Chloe Bailey) have been fans of R&B superstar Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown) since childhood. But while Dre is still slavishly devoted to her idol, with most of her social interactions on Twitter, Marissa is relegating her fandom to the backburner. She’s trying to further her makeup career and her relationship with boyfriend, Khalid (Damson Idris). Marissa wants to join the real world, but Dre wants to stay in the fantasy world of online fandom. Their diverging life paths are inevitably leading to tension between the two.
The strain comes to a head when Dre is supposed to be covering for Marissa at work at a t-shirt stand, unbeknownst to their boss. Khalid distracts her, convincing Dre to leave work to help him pick out a birthday gift for Marissa. Unfortunately, while she’s gone, a group of teens ransacks the stand. The fallout leads to the firing of both sisters. Their already tenuous relationship further damaged, Dre spirals into depression.
Dre’s depression is lifted, however, by the release of Ni’Jah’s latest album, Festival. It inspires the usually reserved girl to go clubbing. However, when tragedy strikes, she decides to leave Houston/ She sets off to meet her idol, guided only by texts that seemingly come from Marissa. But as her grip on reality loosens, her devotion to Ni’Jah turns Dre’s dream into a nightmare.
The story of Swarm takes place in two worlds: the real one and Twitter. For most people, online life and real life are mostly separate, but for Dre, the two exist deeply intertwined. For example, a person may be a fairly decent family man in his public life, but Dre can only see him as someone who dissed Ni’Jah. To her, a person’s internet persona is them in totality. As a result, she can only view them in relation to their love or hatred of the performer. Thus, any disparaging of Ni’Jah is grounds for some sort of retribution.
It would be easy for Dre to be completely unlikeable, but Fishback’s amazing performance keeps the character somewhat sympathetic.
This may seem far-fetched, but it isn’t too far from how stan Twitter (or “fan Twitter” for us old folks) has acted in the past. For instance, “Becky with the Good Hair” on Beyonce’s Lemonade album inspired the BeyHive to harass designer Rachel Roy and her teenage daughter. This is especially relevant as Ni’Jah clearly pulls inspiration from the former member of Destiny’s Child. She’s a Houston-born singer with a famous rapper husband, an indie-darling sister, an online fandom called “The Hive,” and a penchant for releasing visual albums with no prior promotion. For all intents and purposes, she is Beyonce.
And like Beyonce, Ni’Jah’s fans are dedicated. But Dre goes beyond online harassment, with her vengeance seeping into the real world. Dre will do anything to be with Ni’Jah, whether stealing, lying, or manipulating people to get what she wants. This isn’t just relegated to online haters either, as Dre has little regard for people who try to help her.
It would be easy for Dre to be completely unlikeable, but Fishback’s amazing performance keeps the character somewhat sympathetic. As the only actor who appears in every episode, Fishback has to keep us grounded in an increasingly unhinged world. She does so effortlessly. In the first episode, Dre is a shy, somewhat childish young woman, unprepared for adult life. However, as Swarm progresses, she covers her personality with a mask of confidence. Fishback simultaneously captures that mix of assurance and vulnerability. It keeps you on Dre’s side, even as she becomes more and more unhinged.
However, the core of Fishback’s performance lies in Dre’s self-centeredness. Dre has one goal. To achieve it, she’ll ignore the needs and wants of those around her. Whenever presented with anything that may change her paradigm, Dre goes blank, unable to accept that the world she’s constructed isn’t what she wants.
While Dre’s inability to deviate from her goal is thematically relevant, it does a bit of a disservice to the plot. Several times during the series, there are chances for the story to take a different turn, but it rarely does because Dre won’t let it. As a result, Swarm’s plot is a bit disjointed. Many viewers may feel ambivalent or unsatisfied about its resolution. Still, the ride remains an enjoyable one.
So is Swarm based on a true story? In the factual sense, no, but Glover and Naber know the truth about fan culture. What Swarm knows is that the heart of obsessive fandom isn’t devotion; it’s ego. The reason obsessed fans send death threats to their idol’s detractors isn’t that they’re defending the performer. Essentially, they’re protecting themselves and their tastes. While Dre’s devotion to Ni’Jah can delve into the extreme, the thought process isn’t different than what we often see in real life.
Swarm starts buzzing on Prime Video March 17.