“Who’s your favorite artist?” Before the dawn of violent online fandom and crusades of Gen-Z social media users, the icebreaker made for innocent conversation. But with the rise of the internet, cruel intentions now shadow this illusive question.
Tribes of music fans scattered across the web — whether Reddit or Tumblr, TikTok or Instagram — comment this command as a form of violence. Online users often fall for the bait, then battle whoever insists another musician is more influential than their favorite, continuing the relentless cycle. Fandoms use the internet as their battlefield, and their favorite artist’s chart success as their armor.
Often, this rush to claim fandom stems from the desire to relate to larger-than-life celebrities. At its extreme, that desire belies an intense need for human connection. “Swarm,” the new thriller television series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, tries to examine and criticize this modern issue from the lens of an obsessed fan.
Observed from the sidelines, viewers witness Dre Jackson (Dominique Fishback) as she descends from an active listener of fictional, worldwide famous artist Ni’jah (Nirine S. Brown) to an unstable, blood-veiled defender of their music. Viewers learn, at the series’s onset, that she runs Ni’jah fan accounts on Twitter. Branded with the series name, the titular fandom imitates the real-life Beyhive for Beyoncé — same insect and all. On the other side of the coin, Dre reflects those who devote their love (and wallets) to scoring Taylor Swift tickets, as she blows thousands on seats at Ni’jah’s Evolution tour.
After her sister commits suicide and she loses her home, Dre transitions into someone of vehement fandom and murders the first Ni’jah hater she can hunt down.
With social media as her abettor and blood on her kitchen floor, she beams at the death of her first victim, and an obedience to her favorite artist forms. “Swarm” constructs an intense, satirized shot of frenzied fandom, an issue showrunner Glover — who creates music under the name Childish Gambino — often faces and condemns.
At first, the series bites. “Swarm” humanizes the odd affinities some hold for celebrities and online fandoms with harsh humor and derisive drama. But as the blood dries and Dre’s murders subside, so does the show’s allure. Nabers and Glover run out of comments to leave on artist fandom, and the arc needed to characterize Dre as more than a perpetually awkward, sometimes comical killer plateaus. Sold as a satirical thriller-horror, “Swarm” calls for either morbid amusement or cultural critique — two demands the show fails to meet.
In its first three installments, the series uses Dre as a vessel to depict the common desire for human connection shared between most fandoms. The show’s writers, which include Glover’s older brother (Stephen Glover) and Malia Obama, mirror online frenzies of the 2010s, and describe this real-life resemblance as intentional in the series introduction. Fishback lends herself to the role with clever humor and an acute awareness of modern stan culture, which renders her execution of the character relevant and familiar, fresh and delicate.
Without Fishback, this series would lose itself in the toothless commentaries and cinematic luster it labors to establish. Amid cool tones shot on film, Glover and Nabers lend the show the look of a prestige HBO drama. But while the blue dashes of film are beautiful, somber mosaics of isolation, when shifted within the context of Dre as a stone-cold murderer, the colors become a mundane and basic choice for horror.
“Swarm” needs convicted characters and innovative direction to achieve the acclaim or cultural revelation Glover and Nabers show reaches for. As of now, it stands shrouded in a sea of senseless blood and nausea, and leaves Fishback as the one standout feature of the series. Her career-turn role — and the dire need for an internet-era criticism of fan culture — deserve much more than what “Swarm” offers.