San Francisco Chronicle
Pop-star obsession taken to surreal, bloody lengths
“Who’s your favorite artist?” Dominique Fishback’s Dre asks new acquaintances (or, increasingly, disrespectful internet trolls she’s stalked) in “Swarm,” an Amazon Prime Video series that’s as weird as its main character.
They’d better give the right answer.
Created by showrunner Janine Nabers and her “Atlanta” collaborator Donald Glover, this “Dahmer” meets the BeyHive comedy can also be as surreal and unknowable as its central character. What we can tell for sure about Dre is that she’s a socially inept stan of Ni’Jah, willing to blow a month’s rent on front-row tickets to the pop music superstar’s concerts though she rarely makes it to a show.
“She knows what we’re thinking and she gives it a name,” the often sullen Dre says of her idol with passionate conviction. “She’s a goddess!”
Khalid (Damson Idris of “Snowfall”), her Houston roommate’s preening boyfriend, correctly observes that Dre sounds like she’s in a cult. Said roomie Marissa (Chloe Bailey of “Grown-ish”) is evidently the only person who’s ever tolerated dreary Dre’s irresponsibility and occasional violent outbursts. When the fangirl’s connection to this couple abruptly ends, she sets off on a two-year road trip following Ni’Jah’s tour — often in vehicles stolen from their no longer living owners.
While Beyoncé is never mentioned (Nabers claims overzealous devotees of numerous pop stars — including Glover’s Childish Gambino persona — informed Dre), the show sure mimics a lot of Queen Bey’s style, art and incidents we associate with her. The audiovisual cacophony that buzzes through the show and Dre’s head even contains threats aimed at “Becky with the good hair,” a nod to Beyoncé’s searing single “Sorry” off of 2016’s “Lemonade.”
A disclaimer before most episodes teases that they’re not works of fiction. To further muddy the waters of truth, the producers claim every crime is based on something that really happened or was widely rumored to have. By doing this, we come to share Dre’s tenuous grip on reality.
Fishback is in practically every scene, except for one episode where she doesn’t appear at all (it’s a brilliant take on another facet of cultural unreliability á la “The Goof Who Sat by the Door” finale of “Atlanta”). She’s all about Dre’s impulses but tantalizingly patient at revealing the character’s deeper, motivating thoughts and feelings. Always a striking screen presence, whether as the naive but determined hooker in “The Deuce” or the nurturing, devastated activist of “Judas and the Black Messiah,” the actress has never used her gift for roiling impassivity to more chilling effect.
Put Fishback in a mall food court and give her a delusional, straight-tothe-camera monologue, though, and she’ll break your heart with every sad, lying word.
She also makes Dre’s unfortunate hair and wardrobe choices personal statements as much as sight gags (Portia from “The White Lotus,” meet your match). Disciplined as all get-out, Fishback rarely plays into the laughs the character’s absurd psychosis generates. She’s a frightening, wounded core around which the show’s snarling satire of media madness swirls. Dre is also a deceptively blank slate for both a condescending Black community and clueless white people to project their misunderstandings onto, often hilariously. Until she explodes.
Significantly, the only character who sort of sees Dre is Heather Simms’ detective Loretta Greene, who recognizes clues to the suspect’s race and gender but can’t catch her. Amid a rocking roster of guest stars — at least one of whom has a fandom hive that rivals Beyoncé’s — Simms’ is the most award-worthy performance (well, maybe that of Kiersey Clemons, whose role I won’t reveal here).
But it’s Fishback who* gives us the real thing in “Swarm’s” throng of reality-bending gambits, even as we’re drawn into Dre’s deranged, subjective worldview. Don’t expect this oddball to entertain us like more ingratiating murderers such as Dexter or Dr. Lecter. But if you can get on and appreciate her wavelength, Fishback may become your new favorite artist.