Prime Video’s “Swarm” is a critique of rabid fandom and other out-of-control aspects of our culture from series creators who, in many ways, show full command of their medium.
Nominally a commentary on the godlike qualities fans ascribe to Beyoncé (the show calls her Ni’Jah, but the veil is intentionally translucent), the new limited series from Donald Glover and fellow “Atlanta” writer and producer Janine Nabers expands into a frequently fascinating exploration of obsessions ranging from food to cults to true crime.
Glover and showrunner Nabers deftly shift genre and tone, seamlessly moving from psychological thriller to true horror to slapstick comedy as Dre — the least hinged member of the Beyhive-esque Ni’Jah fandom known as the Swarm, played by the excellent Dominique Fishback (HBO’s “The Deuce”) — wreaks havoc across the country.
The extent of the show creators’ ability to play with the form only becomes fully evident after watching all seven episodes. (Easy enough to do — each run about 30 minutes and will release all at once on Friday, March 17). With so much creative skill on display, it also takes the length of the season to recognize how little “Swarm” actually has to say. A head-scratcher of a finale kills the momentum created by the previous two episodes and introduces a tired, problematic trope at the 11th hour (revealing its nature would spoil too many aspects of the show).
A run-up of small revelations in Episodes 5 and 6 seem as if they are leading to an explosive, all-will-be revealed conclusion. But instead of “Crazy in Love” crescendo, or even a “Cuff It” energy to match Dre’s nihilism, the feel is “Halo” underwhelming. Insights into Dre’s violent behavior that seem necessary to understand her character never arrive, as the finale confirms that “Swarm” ultimately will be a psychological thriller minus the psychology.
It’s not as if Glover and Nabers did not warn us. They previously telegraphed their intentions by having one character admonish another for seeking the details of Dre’s childhood, suggesting the inquisitor’s interest is exploitive or, at the least, merely gossip-y.
It’s a valid point that speaks to the public’s demand these days that everyone tell all, about themselves or someone close to them. We are perfectly fine to wait — for the next “Housewives” season, or for Harry and Meghan to release the next book or documentary — as long as we can be certain all will be spilled eventually.
In many respects, the series creators’ refusal to pull the heartstrings on Dre’s behalf is admirable. But “Swarm” needed to be at least a “tell-some” to work. This intentional lack of character development aligns with some of the show’s observations about fandom, show business and human nature that, when separated from its creative dazzle, can seem rather shallow.
Fishback, fortunately, is never less than immensely watchable as the single-minded Dre. The show can go the places it does, tonally and geographically, because of Fishback’s focused performance.
“Swarm” opens with Dre living with her best friend (singer Chloe Bailey) in their — and Beyoncé’s — hometown of Houston. Bailey brings a mix of effervescence and realism to Marissa that complements Dre’s tendency to alternate between doleful and dreamy, depending on her proximity to the next Ni’Jah show.
Only Ni’Jah and Marissa — a talented makeup artist with plans beyond the mall T-shirt kiosk where she and Dre work — can make Dre smile. Marissa loves Ni’Jah too, but balks at Dre putting thousands of dollars on a new credit card to pay for tickets to a concert when Dre cannot make rent.
Dre is most closely in tune with her more negative emotions, as she demonstrates in a horrific act of violence that forces her to flee the city. It will be far from Dre’s last violent act while on the run, as she simultaneously stalks Ni’Jah and avenges the singer by attacking internet trolls who question her genius.
Once Dre is on the road, Fishback mostly schools her expression into a neutrality befitting Dre’s purposes of blending in as she visits new cities and encounters a parade of interesting characters. These episodes strongly evoke “Poker Face” in setup, although Dre is more likely to start fires than solve crimes like Natasha Lyonne does in the Peacock series.
“Swarm” gives substantial screen time to several guest stars, including Paris Jackson, charismatic as an overly chatty exotic dancer whose character plays as a riff on Riley Keough’s from the film “Zola.” Heather Simms shines as a hilariously self-involved detective, and Byron Bowers is sympathetic and sweet as a concert sound man who falls into Dre’s clutches.
How does Dre even have clutches? With great subtlety, Fishback shows how Dre, when shifting into survival or Ni’Jah intelligence-gathering modes, can be personable and even charming. Dre is also savvy enough to know a lot of people care most about themselves, so all she needs to do is pay them a modicum of attention to achieve her aims. She is even able to suppress her displeasure when people offer hot takes about how Ni’Jah’s sister is the superior artist. Dre’s contempt is barely detectable.
Her fallback neutral expression underscores how ready other characters are to impose their preconceptions of Dre. When a predatory white Tennessee cop harasses Dre on her way to see Ni’Jah at Bonnaroo, a white woman (Kate Lyn Sheil, all spaced-out good intentions) intervenes on her behalf, white savior complex in full bloom. When Dre reveals she planned to sleep in her car, the woman leads her to an all-woman community whose Free People style says folk rock but whose forced sunniness screams NXIVM.
This setup leads to one of the show’s best moments, as Dre engages in an intense conversation that allows Fishback to add more emotional layers to her performance. “Swarm,” for those 10 minutes or so, is as well-acted and emotionally resonant as TV gets.
“Swarm” premieres Friday, March 17, on Prime Video.