TV lost a true visionary when Donald Glover’s Atlanta wrapped up a spectacular four-season run on FX last year. Lucky for us, he’s not done making great television yet, and Atlanta fans will feel right at home with his new horror thriller Swarm, premiering this Friday on Prime Video. (I’ve seen all seven episodes.) Brutally violent and darkly hilarious, Swarm is a stunning statement on the dangers of extreme fandom, anchored by a terrific and terrifying lead performance from Dominique Fishback that’s destined to rank as one of the year’s very best.
Fishback (The Deuce) stars as Dre, a devoted super fan of a Beyoncé-like pop idol named Ni’Jah, whose fanatical followers are known as The Swarm. (As one character notes: “Talk about Ni’Jah, you get stung.”) Dre and her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) used to be huge Ni’Jah fans together, but now Marissa has grown up and moved on, while Dre is still stuck in teenybopper mode, obsessing over Ni’Jah’s every move. When tragedy strikes, it sends Dre spiraling down into a very dark place… and launches her on a savage cross-country killing spree, exacting vengeance on anyone who dares to question Ni’Jah’s supremacy.
Glover (credited as co-creator and executive producer) reteams with Atlanta writer Janine Nabers, who serves as showrunner here, and they bring Atlanta‘s unsettlingly surreal tone and dark humor with them to Dre’s story. Swarm is vividly rendered and thick with atmosphere, taking place in mundane settings that make the violence stand out all the more. It also puts us in a queasy moral position: Dre is funny and even sympathetic at times… but then she snaps and sees red, with a disturbing buzzing sound ringing in her ears. (She asks her victims, “Who’s your favorite artist?” and anyone who doesn’t say Ni’Jah soon regrets that decision.) We’re not exactly rooting for her, but she’s undeniably fascinating all the same.
Bailey and Snowfall star Damson Idris do nice work here in small roles, but this is Fishback’s show all the way, and she runs away with it. Dre is an odd duck: socially awkward and utterly lacking in recognizable human emotion, but almost childlike, too. (When she hears a song by Ni’Jah playing, she looks as if she’s possessed.) Fishback masterfully switches from Dre’s public discomfort, with twitching legs and sudden eye darts, to her secret bloodlust with admirable ease. By the end, Dre completely transforms, taking Fishback’s already superb performance to incredible new heights. If there’s any justice in this world, her name will be remembered come Emmy time.
Swarm gets episodic as Dre crisscrosses the country, falling in with a friendly group of strippers and then a NVIXM-like “female empowerment group,” with a stealth appearance from a real-life pop superstar that makes the whole thing very meta. It does grow a bit repetitive — yet another recent example of a limited series that probably could’ve just been a movie. (A detour into true-crime parody, while fun, only serves to blunt the main story’s momentum.) But Fishback’s performance never grows stale, and though Glover and Nabers’ tale takes some pretty wild turns by the end, it’s one hell of a ride that I won’t forget anytime soon.
THE TVLINE BOTTOM LINE: Donald Glover proves he can do horror too with Swarm, anchored by a dazzling lead performance from Dominique Fishback.