Even if you aren’t the biggest Beyoncé fan, it’s impossible not to clock who the megastar at the center of Swarm, Amazon’s new comically-edged psychological thriller series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, is based on. Everything about the show’s story of a disturbed fan who finds murderous purpose in her obsession with a celebrity she doesn’t know is meant to make you think deeply about what it really means to lose yourself in parasocial relationships and online fandom.
At times, you can see how Swarm is tapping into a number of interesting ideas and attempting to weave them into a critical text meant to be read closely. But the show’s so committed to lampooning one real-world idol and her legion of stans that Swarm ends up feeling fixated on punching down rather than actually saying something insightful about how people can end up finding community in the most toxic digital spaces.
Swarm tells the tale of a young woman named Andrea “Dre” Greene (Dominique Fishback), who, like countless other people in the world, thinks of multiplatinum recording artist Ni’Jah (Nirine S. Brown) as the second coming or the closest thing to it. For Dre and her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey), Ni’Jah isn’t just a singer and dancer whose performances sell out stadiums across the world — she’s a wellspring of the art that helped shape their identities as young girls when they first discovered her music. But after years of being able to bond over their shared love of Ni’Jah’s music and a Twitter fan page dedicated to their favorite singer, Swarm opens at a time in the sisters’ lives when it’s clear that their closeness hasn’t exactly been healthy for either of them.
As the more well-adjusted sister, Marissa knows in her heart of hearts that some distance might do her and Dre a little good. But when Marissa’s decision to pull away becomes somewhat more long-term, Dre begins to spiral in a way that makes good on the many heavy-handed hints Swarm drops to the reality that she’s a dangerous person in desperate need of some professional counseling.
To some extent, the first time Dre murders someone for a perceived slight against Ni’Jah is meant to take you by surprise because of how objectively unhinged killing a person over a pop star is. But as Swarm’s story unfolds across the season’s seven episodes, the show tries to make clear that the darkness within Dre is far more complicated than her being a burgeoning serial killer who just so happens to like one of the most popular singers in the world. The isn’t always successful at the endeavor, unfortunately.
Similar to Netflix’s You, Swarm is a chronicle of a killer coming to understand their particular flavor of psychosis and trying to convince themselves that the monstrous things they do aren’t exactly their faults. The show’s also a critique of modern fandom, however, which is interesting on its face. But because Swarm’s Ni’Jah is so clearly a Beyoncé analogue instead of an amalgam of celebs with rabid followings, the series has a tendency to read like screed aimed at the Beyhive and the Black women who count themselves among its members rather than a nuanced deconstruction of stan culture writ large.
As Dre, Fishback is a pitch-perfect portrait of arrested development and idiosyncrasies that speak to her years of codependence on her sister and Ni’Jah, who appears throughout the series in music videos and other TV appearances that give you a sense of how ever-present a figure she is. But one of the more surprising things about Swarm is how little of Ni’Jah’s art is really put front and center in the show. That can sometimes make it hard to understand what it is that Dre, or anyone else, loves about her so much.
That all being said, Swarm definitely has its merits, and it’s often legitimately funny as it weaves real-world Beyoncé apocrypha into its fictional reality. But as solid as its jokes are and as promising as its concept is, Swarm doesn’t always feel like it’s putting in the work to truly be great, which is a shame because it’s so close to being there.
Swarm also stars Karen Rodriguez, Damson Idris, Paris Jackson, Billie Eilish, and Kiersey Clemons. The series is now streaming on Amazon Prime.