Created by Reggie Rock Bythewood and inspired by the real-life experiences of NBA player Kevin Durant during his time in youth basketball, Apple TV+’s “Swagger” tells the story of 14-year-old Jace Carson (Isaiah Hill), already being lauded as the best basketball player in the country before he even hits high school. Like a young Durant, Carson pursues his journey in the D.M.V. — the Washington metropolitan area of “D.C., Maryland, Virginia,” one of the most competitive markets for youth basketball.
Supported by his driven single mother, Jenna (Shinelle Azoroh), best friend Crystal (Quvenzhané Wallis), and new coach-slash-former up-and-coming-basketball-star Ike (O’Shea Jackson Jr,, replacing Winston Duke, who had to pull out of the series due to an on-set injury), Jace sets out to prove himself over the course of the series as both the best individual player and the best team player — two goals that don’t always work in concert with each other, or with his mother or coach’s desires for his basketball career.
Though inspired by Durant’s life, “Swagger” is a contemporary piece, set in a time of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests. In fact, early in the pilot, the series notes that it begins “BEFORE: ABC,” with “ABC” standing for “Ahmaud, Breonna, COVID.” However, while the show opens there, it does not strictly stay in that time period, for better or worse. While it absolutely makes sense to frame this type of story — especially a present-day one — within the context of the Black struggle and the current climate especially for a young Black athlete with a platform, “Swagger”’s staunch commitment to being in the real world that causes things to go off the rails — specifically the first time a character appears in public in a mask, after coronavirus is mentioned as seemingly an aside.
“Swagger” also depicts other aspects of competitive youth sports that Durant never had to face. Jace and his teammates need to block out the noise, not just from overzealous coaches or racist catcalls from the crowd, but also from anonymous Instagram trolls and radio commentators and every other form of media that threatens to seep into their brains.
As you might guess, “Swagger” is a show trying to be and do too many different things at once. Apple TV+ describes the series as one that explores the world of youth basketball, and the players, their families and coaches who walk the fine line between dreams and ambition, and opportunism and corruption. And it explores all of these aspects to a fault, to the point where it’s multiple versions of “Swagger” at once, never quite achieving a great version of even just one.
The most promising version of “Swagger” is easily update on the 2000 rom-com “Love & Basketball,” centered on Jace and Crystal’s friendship and obvious budding feelings for each other. (Unsurprisingly, “Love & Basketball” writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood serves as a consulting producer.) While there are interesting dynamics between Hill — who came from the world of youth basketball to this, his first acting role — and Azoroh and Jackson, the young star is best able to come to life opposite Wallis.
Each major teammate also gets his own storyline, which presents challenges when real-life COVID production issues appear to kick in and one teammate’s story continues via Facetime. “Swagger” doesn’t stop there, also electing to follow the coaches’ interior lives (leading to one baffling arc whose emotional endpoint is completely unearned), the struggles of Jace’s single mother, Crystal’s own basketball journey, a shoe-company rep named Alonzo Powers (Tristan Mack Wilds) who seeks to infiltrate the DMV youth basketball scene, COVID and BLM (and police brutality and kneeling), abuse, abandonment and the uninteresting mystery as to why Ike didn’t make it to the NBA. The diffuse focus makes the series too muddled to really latch on to any one narrative thread.
A show like “Swagger” obviously promises to show the kind of found family that can be created by a team and a common goal; however, every time a players goes on about how the team is now a “family,” it rings surprisingly hollow and false. There are bonding scenes — both in terms of emotional connecting and understanding and in terms of clowning on each other and goofing off, which provides some of the rare moments of levity and fun — but they start invoking “family” so quickly to set up the next story beat — either to show the “family” lying to each other or to have the “family” show up in a moment that otherwise feels unearned. It’s as if the writers feel that dropping the word “family” is enough to do the work by itself.
“Swagger” is stronger in showing the actual, physical dynamics of competitive basketball. It starts with coaches who heckle kids, try to get parents to sign away parental rights, and do anything else they can to get ahead in this business. And parents aren’t blameless either, from the ones who can afford to pay for the team uniforms in exchange for more playing time for their kid or the ones who have to work multiple jobs to make ends meet. While Jace is the star of the family, Jenna Carson is the true go-getter with hustle, simply focused on making sure her son has every possible opportunity to succeed. The basketball scenes — from training to the actual games — are compelling, though the show somewhat struggles to really build the tension of close games. Considering the fact that the series begins with Jace already being talked about as the best, it’s surprising how much he crumbles under pressure over the course of the season.
It’s also surprising how a show with such a remarkable pedigree — Apple TV+ touts how producer Imagine also made “Friday Night Lights” — has so many moving pieces that it never quite comes together.
“Swagger” premieres on Apple TV+ with its first three episodes on October 29, before transitioning to its weekly schedule.