Donald Glover Doesn’t Even Try To Understand Stan Culture In ‘Swarm’

Swarm would have made an excellent movie and an even better SNL sketch (or…). It’s got a stinging (sorry) premise: What if one of those zany online stans really carried out their constant threats against anyone who dares to criticize their favorite artists? After all, there’s just enough of a hint of real-world danger – online doxxing and stalkers showing up at celebrities’ homes – that a satire of stan culture is not only timely but also arguably needed in the current climate.

But Donald Glover and Janine Nabers’ seven-episode Amazon Prime Video miniseries misses its opportunity to really make a decisive artistic statement about the subject. Instead, it pursues the appearance of art, opting to focus on style and head-scratching creative diversions in surreality rather than substance. In doing so, it stretches the kernel of creative potential in its premise into a format that could have worked – but only with someone else at the helm.

In the show, Dominique Fishback – who gives an out-of-this-world lead performance — plays Dre, a Houston woman whose superfandom of Beyoncé stand-in Ni’Jah makes social interaction difficult for her. Initially, Dre presents as a kind of a tabula rasa, which could be useful for projections of crazed standom. After all, these folks often send their bee emoji-laden jabs from the safety of anonymity, using aliases and sock puppet accounts to protect their identities from their obviously problematic behaviors.

That’s why we’re mostly left to guess their motivations. Who are they? Why do they do these things? What are their lives like? Are they dealing with unprocessed trauma? Are they just sociopaths? Dre functions in the story as kind of a repository for the possible answers to those questions, but because of this, she comes across as flat – at least, at first. Dre lives and works with Marissa, her “sister” who shares a love of Ni’Jah, but several orders of magnitude less intense (she’s played by Beyoncé protege Chloe Bailey, who is often on the receiving end of stan backlash, most recently over this very show).

When tragedy strikes, Dre makes an unconscionable decision that forces her to go on the run, adopting a string of false identities and temporary occupations across the nation. At the same time, she takes on a new mission: To defend Ni’Jah from online critics and trolls by any means necessary – which usually involves blunt force trauma to the cranium.

Along the way, a variety of cleverly cast guest stars including Billie Eilish, Paris Jackson, and the incomparable Cree Summer (hell, this show is worth it just for getting Cree’s actual face on TV again) get pulled into Dre’s orbit, prompting them to ponder her ever-present question: “Who’s your favorite artist?” The first four episodes play this way — about two hours of the show — which is why it seems like perhaps this could have been a movie instead.

If this sounds a lot like another buzzy murder-a-week mystery show, that’s because Poker Face operates on a similar premise, only in reverse. In that show, human lie detector Charlie (played by the delightful Natasha Lyonne) bounces from small town to small town taking cash jobs and solving murders. To be honest, if Swarm were a howdunit like this involving Dre just trying to lay low and blend in while getting close to her targets and working out angles for retribution, I’d have written one happy review.

Instead, the show crashes in the fifth episode, losing all its momentum and starting to veer irretrievably into the deepest valleys of its campy concept. Instead of continuing to unravel the character of Dre through her encounters with possible victims or would-be acquaintances, the show returns her to Houston for a confrontation with her past – one that fails to reveal anything truly interesting about the character, her motivations, or her internal world.

The penultimate episode attempts to do that excavation but from the perspective of a new character – and a new show format – that seems tonally inconsistent from what’s gone before. This is a Donald Glover trademark, which he employed in his prior prestige show Atlanta. I know a lot of people find those detours endearing and smart; I always felt they were kind of pretentious and smug.

Sure, it’s groundbreaking, but sometimes I wonder if Glover just gets bored and throws in one of these episodes to troll the audience. I’ve got a sense of humor, but with all the hundreds of other options for entertainment, challenging me to turn off your show and choose one of them is probably going to result in me doing just that. But there’s still one more episode of Swarm to get through: The finale.

Suffice it to say that in pursuing Glover’s typical narrative carelessness, the ending of this tale disappoints. It doesn’t satisfactorily wrap up Dre’s story, and it doesn’t deliver a solid thesis. It handwaves the audience’s concerns, leaving us to “figure it out” after refusing to give us enough solid information to do so. Ultimately, the show has no opinion on stans; it doesn’t know whether they are pathetic, whether they deserve empathy, whether they are just pranksters everyone takes too seriously, or serial killers just waiting for the right trigger.

It’s clear that a lot of craft and care went into the early episodes. They’re shot on film, and many scenes have such striking compositions that I literally went to sleep and dreamed about how beautiful this show looks. And the directors pull some truly magnificent performances out of Fishback and many of the guest stars. But Swarm eventually gets caught between style and substance, and given its creators, the former is going to win every time (this is America, y’all).

The ways in which Dre’s character fills in toward the end of the show are pat and staid. The revelations about her past are predictable and don’t truly explain her standom — or why that standom turns into full-blown psychotic rage. Dre’s mission gets muddied; is she a stan overzealously defending her Queen, or is she a traumatized sister lashing out at an unfathomable loss? And what does her journey actually say about the wider culture of standom?

We never see her engage with the Hyve (ha) as a whole, save for one episode that references that “Sanaa Lathan supposedly bit Beyoncé at a party” incident, and even then, her experience with the broader collective is solely through the screen of her phone. We never get the chance to contrast her behavior with any other example of the species to learn if she’s representative or beyond the pale. Instead, we get a cut-and-dry serial killer narrative that seemingly wants us to feel a little sorry for her, even as she makes wild, unexplained transitions and continues to commit ghastly murders.

The part of all this that makes Swarm especially disappointing is that there’s another name attached: Janine Nabers. Because Glover’s name is naturally going to take top billing in most folks’ minds, Nabers’ contributions have been getting overshadowed in so much of the discussion taking place about the show. And because they’re billed as co-creators, it’s impossible to attribute the show’s issues and triumphs to one or the other. Is Nabers the real genius, hamstrung by attachment to the figurehead who doubles as an albatross, or were her ideas the ones that kept this flight of fancy so earthbound?

Unlike the questions that the show itself posits but refuses to unpack, answers may be forthcoming. Glover’s got a handful of other projects to look forward to. Nabers has productions in the works with both Amazon and HBO (hacking drama Syd at the former and a sports comedy with Insecure showrunner Prentice Penny at the latter). So, we’ll soon see how Nabers fares on her own. Fortunately for both, they shouldn’t have to worry about those pesky stans at their next gigs.