‘Swarm’ alludes to the Beyhive, but the new thriller is about much more

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By Amit


Note: This article discusses plot points in “Swarm,” but avoids major spoilers.

Yes, “Swarm” the new series from Donald Glover and Janine Nabers, begins with a disclaimer that “this is not a work of fiction” and that “any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events, is intentional.” And yes, the show features a larger-than-life pop star with a loyal, ever-buzzing fan base, who breaks Ticketmaster when she announces a pivotal tour, witnesses an altercation between her husband and sister in an elevator and gets bitten by a stranger who at least one person believes to be Sanaa Lathan.

But “Swarm,” which began streaming Friday on Prime Video, is not about Beyoncé — not really, anyway. It’s about Dre.

Dre (Dominique Fishback) is a 20-something woman who is obsessed with the fictional superstar Ni’jah — a fandom she shares with Marissa (Chloe Bailey), who is introduced as her sister and best friend. But when a tragedy sends Dre reeling, her obsession with Ni’jah descends into something darker: a parasocial relationship that becomes inextricable from her bond with Marissa.

“We really, really, really wanted to put a Black woman at the helm of a story in the way that you see so many White men in Hollywood take these anti-hero journeys,” Nabers said over Zoom. “You’re with them — until you’re not. You sympathize with them. Sometimes you just hate them. Sometimes you love them.

“Giving a Black woman that journey was really important to me as a Black woman,” Nabers added.

Dre makes for a memorable anti-hero, even when her actions are hard to watch. Her backstory is intentionally vague, though we get more details — just enough, that is — with every installment of the seven-episode series.

The show came to Bailey and Fishback in a similarly ambiguous way — as an untitled project from Glover. Both were instructed to watch “The Piano Teacher,” a French-language psychological drama released in 2001. Fishback had just wrapped filming for “Transformers: Rise of the Beasts” in Peru when she got the call. Originally, she said, Glover wanted her to play Marissa. But after she saw a script, the “Judas and the Black Messiah” actress knew she had to play Dre. Glover offered her his full support — no audition required.

Fishback was offered few details about her character beyond the fact that Dre was “emotionally stunted.” As a result, she couldn’t approach the role the way she typically would — by journaling and trying to get to know the character psychologically. “I had to make sense of [the character] physically — and be present,” she explained.

“It gave me a sense of freedom,” Fishback said, noting that Nabers and Glover trusted her to bring her own artistry to the project. “That was a lot of fun for me, because then I just started doing really strange things physically and seeing what reaction I got. Donald would be like ‘That was strange — I like it.’”

In the first episode, directed by Glover, Dre sucks her fingers in a vulnerable moment. The scene is both shocking and laugh-out-loud hilarious — and it evokes the surreality of “Atlanta.” Fishback said the script called for Dre to suck her thumb, but the actress thought her character was “too interesting” for that, instead modeling Dre’s self-soothing after the way one of her sisters sucked her fingers as a kid.

Nabers, a playwright and TV writer whose credits include “Watchmen” and “Girlfriends’ Guide to Divorce” was working as a writer/co-executive producer on the fourth and final season of “Atlanta” when Glover shared the idea that would become “Swarm.” The pair worked for months on a pitch for the series and took the idea directly to Amazon, which released Glover’s 2019 film “Guava Island.” (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

The “Swarm” writer’s room where Nabers stepped into her first showrunner rolefeatured several other “Atlanta” alums, including Fam Udeorji, Jamal Olori and Stephen Glover. “We were already making so much content with really cool people, and it just only felt natural that most of the writers from ‘Atlanta’ would come on to this project,” Nabers said.

“Swarm” continues several traditions established on the FX dramedy — a pioneer in the small but expanding canon of what Nabers calls “weirdo Black shows” — including the subversiveness of the story and a standout episode that plays out like a true-crime documentary. And like “Atlanta,” “Swarm” features beloved Black actors — including Cree Summer and Leon (of “The Five Heartbeats” and “Temptations” fame), as well as rising star Damson Idris (FX’s “Snowfall”) — in roles that can subvert (or alternately, play into) expectations.

The writer’s room also included Malia Obama — the eldest daughter of former president Barack Obama — credited here as Malia Ann. The former first daughter co-wrote an installment that sheds light on Dre’s traumatic backstory.

Beyoncé parallels notwithstanding, the writers had plenty to draw on amid their own ranks. “I created this show with someone who has his own swarm of people around him who do very insanely weird and funny and scary things to try to get close to him,” Nabers said.

It’s not just the show’s narrative that explores our culture’s often-warped view of celebrity. It is woven into the show in various ways — including cameos by one very famous pop star and the child of (another) very famous pop star. And Bailey herself is a protege of Queen Bey, who signed the singer-actress and her sister Halle Bailey, to her management company as the duo Chloe x Halle.

Viewers can “project whoever they want onto the role of the pop star in our world,” said Nabers, noting that Ni’jah is rarely shown on screen. “We don’t really see her for a reason because she is a feeling — she’s supposed to represent something that we all kind of understand and know at a distance.”

Though Bailey has her own relationship with fandom — through her own closely watched career and that of her mentor — she said she didn’t connect that aspect of her own experience to her portrayal of Marissa. “’Swarm’ isn’t about fandom in its entirety,” she said. “It’s about Dre and it’s about how — the things that she loves — how obsessively tight she holds onto them.”

Her scenes with Fishback were intense and often emotional, and Bailey threw herself into playing a character “who seems good on the outside” but is “terribly broken on the inside.” As director of the pilot, Glover was patient with the stars and any emotions that came up for them during difficult scenes, Bailey said. “He communicated his vision to us, but also let us add a big part of ourselves to it.”

“We made sure each piece of this was honest and raw in every way,” she added.

Every episode of “Swarm” was shot on film, with Nabers, Glover and company referencing movies including “American Psycho,” “Caché” and, of course, “The Piano Teacher.” Though they tell a cohesive, if ambiguous, story that unfolds across a two-and-a-half year period in various cities, each episode functions — very intentionally — as a short film.

“We really set out to kind of break a lot of barriers with the way we tell this story, with the kind of avant-garde, edginess of this story,” Nabers said. “It’s our grindhouse in a lot of ways. And we’re really proud of it.”

Swarm (7 episodes) premiered Friday on Prime Video.

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