Swarm
via Prime Video

Review: ‘Swarm’ twists the knife into parasocial stan culture to unsettlingly satirical effect

Donald Glover's dark and dingy takedown of hero worship is as eccentric as it is surreal.

Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ upcoming series Swarm – which debuts on Prime Video this coming Friday, Mar. 17, begins each one of its seven episodes with disclaimer that reads ““This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional,” and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out who serves as the inspiration.

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The unsettling psychological horror focuses on Dominique Fishback’s Dre, an obsessive stan who has a lifelong and very unhealthy obsession with global music superstar Ni’jah, who boasts a vociferous online fandom who refer to themselves as the Beehive, and warn anyone who dares speak ill of the singer that they’re going to get stung. Oh, and there’s also CCTV footage of the songstress engaging in some fisticuffs in an elevator, as well as a couple of pointed references to her sister. Sound familiar?

Boiling the narrative down to its essence, Swarm is a surprisingly straightforward slasher. After a tragic incident in her personal life that comes at great cost, the detached protagonist travels across the country with the ultimate goal of seeing her hero in the flesh at one of her upcoming concerts, while she also develops a nasty habit of brutally bludgeoning anyone who lets her know they don’t care for Ni’jah’s music to death, replete with a penultimate episode that goes so far down the rabbit hole it’s basically a parody.

Swarm
via Prime Video

Glover has always been a unique creative presence, and that’s on full display from first to last here. Make no mistake about it, though, Swarm isn’t going to be for everyone. There’s an alarming body count, no shortage of full frontal nudity, guest appearances from Rory Culkin and Paris Jackson, borderline hallucinogenic asides, and much more that’s no doubt going to prove plenty polarizing.

Throughout it all, Fishback anchors everything with a ferociously committed performance. You often find yourself daring to root for Dre as she blazes a trail past her friends, family, enemies, and even complete strangers with only one solitary goal in mind, but it feels as if the creative team – which includes contributions from none other than Malia Obama – deliberately wants you to question whether you should get behind her rampage.

Stan culture is bad enough as it is, but what happens when those queasy parasocial relationships (literally) bleed over into the real world? Anyone who criticizes a widely-beloved figure on the internet is opening themselves up to abuse, and Dre is the manifestation of a hardcore stan account come to life. You mess with the Beehive from the comfort of your phone or keyboard, and you get stung with an acerbic verbal rebuttal, but she decides that straight-up murdering those who diss Ni’jah is the most obvious course of action.

Swarm
via Prime Video

Swarm is an incredibly bizarre series that’s definitely going to split opinion, and it’s easy to imagine a lot of people failing to make it to the end. That being said, if you can get on the same wavelength of such a strikingly unique, relentlessly eccentric, oftentimes emotionally manipulative, and relentlessly singular approach, then cult favorite status surely beckons.

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Swarm is that it doesn’t outright justify or condemn the actions of its characters. There’s no shortage of grief, tragedy, death, and despair, but overt judgement is never cast upon anyone. It’s up to the audience to decide how they feel, with Fishback’s raw and unflinchingly committed central turn making it all the more difficult to form up a solid consensus.

Not quite an antihero, but hardly dissimilar from Michael Myers with a stan fetish, it’s an offbeat combination of countless styles, influences, themes, and opinions that refuses to settle on being definitive. That’s a positive or negative depending what episode we’re talking about, but praise should definitely be lavished on the unflinching honesty that serves as the linchpin for Dre’s journey. She does what she thinks is right, regardless of the destruction it leaves behind, but there’s no attempt at sugarcoating her actions, either.

The surface of the real Dre never truly gets scratched for too long given that she essentially assumes a new persona with each new episode, but it never feels clunky or forced watching her switch from mall worker to stripper via cult member and loving partner. Generating big laughs and then turning into a dead-eyed sociopath in the blink of an eye by mere mention of Ni’jah’s name, later installments dive into her backstory to fill in several of the largest gaps left over from episodes past. Trolling has become an artform, but Swarm imagines a scenario when the ones who talk the talk end up walking the walk, and it’s utterly terrifying to think about.

Of course, by the time the seventh and final entry draws to a close, the most pressing question on everyone’s lips will be the desire to find out what Beyoncé has to say about it.

'Swarm' isn't going to be for everyone, but the satirical sci-fi slasher twists the knife deep into stan culture and unhealthy parasocial relationships with a forked tongue.

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Scott Campbell
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