Swarm on Prime Video review: an ultra-modern, pitch-perfect Gen Z show

 (Courtesy of Prime Video)
(Courtesy of Prime Video)

“This is not a work of fiction. Any similarity to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is intentional.” Even in the opening seconds of Swarm, Donald Glover is already playing with us.

The Atlanta producer and star’s latest series is in fact inspired by an “actual person”, whose spectre hangs over the show despite not one mention of her name — Beyoncé. Or more specifically, it is about the cult of Queen Bey, and her notorious diehard fans.

The seven-part thriller stars Dominique Fishback (Judas and the Black Messiah) as Dre, a young Houston woman obsessed with the world’s biggest pop star, Ni’Jah. The face of her Beyoncé-esque idol stares down at her from bedroom walls as she obsessively scrolls through her Twitter stan account.

When Ni’Jah releases an impromptu album (with uncanny resemblance to a certain singer’s latest record Renaissance), she drops thousands of dollars on concert tickets despite being unable to pay rent.

But from the first episode it becomes clear that, even by the extreme standards of the Beyhive — or in this case the Swarm — Dre is no ordinary fan, or even person. She is utterly addicted, responding viscerally to any Ni’Jah news, but blank in the face of real-life human intimacy – like when she walks in on her sister Marissa (Chloe Bailey) having sex with her boyfriend (Damson Idris) and watches from the hallway, expressionless.

Not only does Dre have a warped and quickly spiralling parasocial relationship with Ni’Jah, she is also, it becomes obvious, a sociopath. After an altercation with her sister’s boyfriend that escalates, she sets off on a cross-country killing spree, hunting down unsuspecting users who have slagged off her idol on Twitter. A buzzing sound fills the air as she leans over her victims, asking them: “Who’s your favourite artist?” as they bleed out beneath her, and then dances to Ni’Jah as she mops up the evidence.

 (Courtesy of Prime Video)
(Courtesy of Prime Video)

It’s a fascinating premise: the social media age has spawned obsessive stan followings and often pathological parasocial relationships with bands like BTS, One Direction, and, of course, Beyoncé. But what happens when you take their infamous hyperbole (“Run me over, Queen!”, “I would literally die for you!”, “I would murder my entire family for concert tickets!”) to its logical extreme? How far would you go for your favourite celebrity?

And Glover executes it to perfection. Hyper-realistic fan videos and tweets are interspersed throughout, so convincing that there surely must have been a member of the Hive in the crew (perhaps one Malia Obama, who was in the writers’ room).

Or maybe it is simply a result of Glover’s probable proximity to, and experience of, the phenomenon. Either way, it gives the show an ultra-modern, pitch-perfect Gen Z mood. Cinematically it is also at the cutting edge, experimenting with form – particularly in the penultimate episode – and creatively pushing the boundaries of the genre.

While the show hinges on the morbid humour of its premise, it is also deeply intense and uncomfortable. Episodes flit between graphic murder scenes, a naked cult retreat in a yurt, men at various stages of erection and uncontrollable binge eating.

Though the genre is certainly horror, an element of banality, rather than tension, runs throughout, perhaps because Dre is never really being chased. It does lose a bit of shape towards the middle – an episode featuring an A-list singer who must not be named (but who does a phenomenal job) sags a little, and the murders gets a tad repetitive.

But Fishback is an impeccable Dre, embodying a Jordan Peele-esque trippiness in her mannerisms and giving the proceedings a chilling uneasiness even in lighter moments. Despite Dre being an interstate murderer, you are still rooting for her by the end.

Obviously there’s no attempt to make Swarm seem like it’s not about Beyoncé – the references to her rapper husband, the Houston setting, the Afrofuturist visuals, the infamous “who bit Beyoncé?” scandal. The references become more playful and obvious throughout – by the final episode they’re practically saying her name.

So what will the Hive think of the show? It’s hard to tell. Let’s hope for Glover’s sake that they don’t take it too seriously.

Swarm will be streaming on Prime Video from March 17